Monday, November 26, 2012

Ann's Trip to India -- Part I



Ever since reading Shantaram Ann's desire to tour India was heightened.  Did I want to go?  Well, yes, but mostly no.  The latter relates to health issues and, truth be told, in my advancing years, I like travel that is less stressful. (And having read Shantaram as well, I felt I had already experienced the real India!) But these factors would not detour my intrepid wife, and I respect and admire her determination and willingness to endure some of the frenetic aspects of the trip not to mention some disheartening sights. I was lucky enough to be the recipient of her fascinating, spontaneous emails along the way and I collected them for her and she in turn has edited and embellished them with more detail.  I'm delighted to be publishing her account here, along with some of the wonderful photographs she took along the way.  She is not a photographer, but her point and shoot digital, along with many hours she took to edit, crop, and title them, produced some impressive shots, making her account even more alive. So, we present the first part of her journey, the second part to be published when she catches her breath!

Half of the fun of travel is the planning and anticipation and for my trip to India at the end of October, I had been on the highest level of excitement you can imagine. For the prior six months, I had been collecting the appropriate clothing, receiving my vaccinations and inoculations, sending away my Passport for the requisite Visa stamp, making sure I had all possible contingency medications on hand, as well as purchasing other travel gear for safety and comfort during my stay in a third world country. No one could have been readier for this trip! That is until Hurricane Sandy began threatening first here in Florida and then more seriously, the northeast. So I had to ask myself, why was it hitting New York on the very day I was flying out of JFK to Delhi? The hassle of having to reconfigure all of my travel logistics just added to the overall anxiety, anticipation and nervousness I was already feeling about leaving Bob for 18 days and going off on such an exotic adventure.

Once it seemed certain that the airports would most likely close down,  at the very last moment I was able to book a direct flight on Air France out of Miami. With a big sigh of relief, I was now on my way!  An uneventful fourteen hour flight later, I was met at the airport by an Overseas Adventure Travel employee and driver and stepped out into the smoky, smog enshrouded streets of Delhi. Huh? Somehow I missed that part of the weather forecast about not being able to breathe, thinking November was a perfect time of the year to visit. Noxious fumes, air pollution and thick smog were an omnipresent problem throughout the trip, although we were lucky that we only had a few really hot days.  As it turned out, itchy eyes and a scratchy throat were a small price to pay for the sights and sounds to follow.

I arrived a day early which helped me to acclimate a little to the 10 ½ hour time change, met my trip leader, Vineet Joshi, who gave me a huge bear hug at the hotel, and immediately let me use his phone to call Bob and lent me his computer to send a follow up email.  He was always accommodating and looked out for each of us like a Mother Hen, not to mention sharing some hilarious and often very touching personal stories about his family and the difficulty of finding a suitable marriage partner.  When Vineet was already well into his thirties, his father said that the time had come for him to marry. One of the popular ways to search is through the newspaper matrimonial ads.  So they placed one that said “A handsome Brahmin, from a good family, well educated, self employed as a Travel Guide, wishes to marry Brahmin girl, etc., etc.”   The responses: 3. Very disappointing.  The next ad read: “A handsome Brahmin, etc. owns 5 bedroom home, etc.”  The responses: 300!  From all the photos and letters, it finally happened that one girl was known by his family to come from a very good home and when everything else was compatible, they married. They now have a little boy and are united for life.  These arranged marriages work out very well in the end.
 
So far only Estela, my friend from Spain, and I made it to India and while waiting for Lisa from California who was arriving later in the day, we two had a crazy idea and decided to leave the hotel and go exploring on our own. The streets of Delhi were exactly as I had read about, cacophonous with sound and teeming with unimaginable traffic, cars, trucks, buses, tuk tuks (3 wheeled minicabs), rickshaws pedaled by underfed men, starving looking dogs, livestock, begging children, people everywhere, jostling, attempting to constantly stop us and sell us something or offer to take us somewhere and of course, people of every age and description with their hands out for money. And then there are the horns.  Blowing a horn in India is the only way to drive anything that moves even if there is absolutely no need whatsoever.….there are no traffic lights or stop signs or very few, certainly no road signs to tell you where you’re going, it is a free for all, a game of “chicken” every single moment every day and a miracle that more people are not maimed or killed either walking or riding, since entire families of five or six ride on the motorcycles or squeeze into the tuk tuks often piled to the roof with passengers or the buses offering all the extra riders the deluxe air-conditioned seats, atop the bus, holding on for dear life!
 
We actually took our lives in our hands and crossed one of the busiest thoroughfares in Delhi, not once but twice!  We saw children and families living on the sidewalks amid filth and trash, a never ending sight in India.  However, no cows!  What a surprise.  Vineet told us that Delhi has taken them all away since they pose too hazardous an obstacle to themselves and others on these insane streets. One can never forget that cows are considered sacred animals, but not so sacred that when their milking days are over, they are left to fend for themselves, digging through garbage, eating plastic and often just lying down and dying in the middle of the street. Life is tough in India for people and animals alike.

Once Lisa arrived, we three began our tour, minus the four other couples who were still stranded waiting for flights out of NY. Our first stop, totally unscheduled, was the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib kitchen, part of the Sikh Shrine which has been feeding approximately 180 Delhi residents every 15 minutes since 1935, free and open to everyone regardless of religion, caste or age.  All of the food preparation, cooking and serving is provided by an army of gursikhs who are paid workers and by volunteers every day from 5:30 AM to 11:30 PM. Here, we left our shoes and walked barefoot behind the scenes right into the kitchen where vast cauldrons of food, once it has been peeled, scrubbed and chopped was being cooked and readied for serving to the thousands of hungry people patiently waiting their turn to enter a vast room and take their place on a carpeted strip where metal plates are filled using enormous ladles of food, up and down each row.  Once a prayer is said, everyone eats, leaves and the next wave of young and old enter and it begins again.  Behind the scenes, volunteers were washing the metal plates and cooking cauldrons, two women were rolling out the chapatis for frying, traditionally made with fat free whole wheat flour, water and salt. These unleavened mounds are flattened with a rolling pin and slapped on an ungreased tawa or hot griddle.   Vats of hearty dal (lentils) were being stirred, rice and vegetables cooked.  No money is paid by anyone for this food; it is all provided by donations and contributions. It was an inspiring experience and a testament to the generosity of those more fortunate. 

While still barefoot, we proceeded to visit the rest of the Temple grounds, an architecturally stunning structure rebuilt many times since Raja Jai Singh originally constructed a bungalow on the site in 1664.  It is easily recognizable by the beautiful golden domes.  The surrounding compound includes a pond considered holy, a school, the Temple, a museum, the Kitchen or Langar and even a hospital.

Then we drove to the other side of Delhi to visit the Lotus Temple, Baha’i House of Worship where again we had to remove our shoes, but this time we were allowed to wear a covering for our feet and walked at least a 1/2 mile to the sanctuary with a million other people on a spiritual pilgrimage to enjoy meditating inside this peaceful place of worship. No one is allowed to speak, talk on the phone, or take photos.  This is simply a quiet place for prayer for people of all faiths.

In the three days we spent in Delhi, we saw many of the major sights, including Birla House, where Mahatma Gandhi spent his last months and was assassinated in 1948 while taking a quiet walk.  It is now a holy shrine in his honor. Earlier in the day, we rode on our first cycle rickshaw ride through the congested and filthy streets of the Chandni Chowk bazaar. Here there are famous sidewalk eateries and a bustling wholesale market selling electronics, clothing direct from the manufacturer, books, leather goods, you name it, but unfortunately we did not see many of the better shops.  Instead, we were pedaled past filthy, dusty streets where practically anything you could ever want was for sale in a stall or stacked on the sidewalk, or piled on a wall.  It was originally built in the 17th century by the Muslin Emperor Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame) but the streets we saw were anything but the once beautiful market lanes. Our ride took us through garbage laden streets with terrible smog-filled air.  How our very thin rickshaw cyclist navigated through the traffic without dumping or killing us was a miracle.

We spent time at the magnificent Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, also built by Shah Jahan in 1650 AD, the courtyard can accommodate 25,000 worshippers!   Our guide and driver also took our little band of three ladies along beautiful tree lined boulevards where we could see from a distance many of the buildings of India’s Parliament and the residence of India’s President as well as Embassy buildings belonging to many countries. We saw the famous India Gate surrounded by a park and the 12th century Qutab Minar with its 234 foot high tower.

Dinner with Vineet and Estela was an adventure too, with Vineet hailing a tuk tuk, our first ride in the 3 wheeled little minicab or motor rickshaw as it is often referred to, to take us off to dinner. We were up early the next morning for our first five hour road trip to Jaipur.  Good news….we were finally going to meet up with the rest of our group there.

We enjoyed a beautiful lunch on the way to Jaipur in a former Maharahja of Jaipur’s palace, now a splendid hotel and restaurant.  Once comfortably settled in our hotel, and now all eleven of us gathered together, we proceeded to see many of the wonderful sights including the Amber Fort-Palace, built in the 16th century, including the Sheesh Mahal, a room whose ceiling is covered with small mirrors to represent the night sky sparkling with a million stars. Our visit to the City Palace Museum was fascinating as was the Jantar Mantar, an astrological observatory built in the 18th century and still functioning perfectly today!  In fact, the giant sundials are still accurate to two-tenths of a second.

In Jaipur we had a very early wakeup call one morning (4:45 to be exact) as we were about to go on a hot air balloon ride before breakfast.  We all arrived just in time to see the balloons lying on the ground and being filled with fiery hot air until they began to lift off and eventually take us up, up and away.  Unfortunately, the air was quite foggy as usual and so visibility was fairly limited, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm as we all loved floating over hills and farmland and just being blown wherever the currents took us.  It was fun to watch the faces of children turned skyward and watching us with fascination.  
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For me, the highlight in Jaipur was our Home Hosted dinner with a wonderful family, the Singh’s, who were extraordinarily gracious.  Five of us were welcomed so warmly into their home with a standing greeting at the gate, Mrs. Singh placing a bindi on our foreheads, a dot made with a pinch of vermilion powder, just in the center and a little above our eyebrows.  (We were often greeted entering our many hotels with a dot placed just so and a cool drink or a garland of marigolds or wet towels to cleanse our hands.) Here, we were served beer or cola and appetizers passed by one of the sons of the couple who live on their grounds and keep house for them. They were happy to show us their home and then served a traditional Indian meal, prepared entirely by Mrs. Singh. We all loved her dessert, which she called a fruit cream, exactly as it sounds, bits of cut up fruit in sweet creamy custard.  

She and her husband, who coincidentally is the grandson of the Maharajah whose palace we had stopped for lunch, have a 22 year old daughter in law school and a 13 year old foster daughter they are raising who was born into a lower caste.  Mrs. Singh founded and supports a home/school/hospital for children ages 3 to 15 orphaned by AIDS and themselves suffering from it.  It is her proud enterprise and she was so happy to discuss this with us realizing she had  sympathetic listeners.  She also shared more personal information about how she is already searching for a husband for her daughter.  It will be an arranged marriage, as was hers.  It was just an outstanding evening, one I will never forget, particularly as I was leaving, she and I gave one another such a warm embrace!

We are visiting India during Diwali.  This festival rivals our Christmas and New Year’s all rolled into one!  There is nothing like witnessing the frantic days beforehand of shopping, the frenzied cleaning of the huts and homes, the strings of lights and garlands of marigolds strung up everywhere you look.  It is the “festival of lights” and every home will have purchased small clay pots to be filled with oil and kept burning all night to welcome the goddess Lakshmi, who represents good over evil.  Everyone, from the poorest to the wealthiest will have purchased new clothes and something new for the house as well - even if just a spoon, new pots and pans or bed linens, food, especially sweets and snacks which are shared with family and friends since visiting one another is part of this happy celebration. Even presents are exchanged.  Firecrackers are a big part of Diwali as well, hearing them popping constantly for hours with the air overwhelmingly filled with the smoke. 

From Jaipur, we drove overland through the countryside, over unpaved, uneven, potholed roads toward the Ranthambhore National Park and our Heritage hotel, the Nahargarh Ranthambhore, which in all its16th century Palatial style splendor, appears to rise out of the dusty road as in a mirage.  It is recently built, but strives for an authentic ambience from a by-gone era. It was from here that we enthusiastically started out on two game viewing experiences in an open four-wheeled canter.  Unfortunately, both were to be met with disappointment as we had hoped to catch just a glimpse of the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger, but saw only fresh tracks instead.  We were treated to sightings of other Indian species such as a cousin to the deer, the sambar, the Langur monkey, antelopes and the treepie bird and others.  These rides through the National Park system were the bumpiest, roughest, sandiest, and most jarringly uncomfortable of any I have ever experienced in my life. At one point, I was sure I had shaken out two or three fillings from my teeth!

This is also where we were treated to a climb up a mountain side to see the ruins of a once magnificent fortress built more than 1,000 years ago.  The Ranthambhore Fort, which lies in the heart of the Ranthambhore National Park and was once the hunting grounds of the Maharajahs of Jaipur, is now home to hundreds of wild Langur monkeys who are fairly aggressive.  I climbed the 700 steps to the top in a little more than a ½ hour, stopping to catch my breath along the way and with lots of encouragement from my fellow travelers whose climbing ability far outshone my own.  Once there, the views were breathtaking, although I couldn’t resist asking Vineet where the “down elevator” happened to be, since climbing back down was more tedious and dangerous than actually going up!

After breakfast the following day, we were off on another adventure, this to visit the school nearby that Overseas Adventure Travel supports through donations from the Grand Circle Foundation, a most worthy endeavor. We met the Principal, members of his family and a few of the teachers in the school.  The children were out of school for Diwali, but there were plenty of interested bystanders and actual students to enhance this experience. In the past, our own Vineet had volunteered his painting expertise along with other OAT Trip Leaders to make the school look as presentable as possible. 

We saw where funds had paid for separate bathroom facilities for boys and girls and also purchased a roomful of outdated computers.  Now the school is in dire need of a water pump.  From here, we walked through the nearby alleyways seeing how the local villagers live, meeting a few locals who were as interested in us as we were in them and were served tea in the yard of a local family. Here the mother, father and 1 adult son and 1 married son, with his wife and three little children, all live in one room, which was swept spotlessly clean and where we were invited to enter without our shoes. The water for our tea was heated in a large pot over an open pit fire in the yard with various spices having been ground and added to give it flavor.  It was hot and delicious.

Our next stop the same day was a Woman’s Cooperative which was the inspiration of a group of women who were eager for these local villagers to have a chance to learn a handicraft, sell them and earn their own money. The store itself contained garments to wear, handbags, tablecloths and napkins, and many other handmade items, all of which were very simply sewn, but with beautiful cotton fabric in a variety of designs. There was a backyard area with tables and we were treated to a most delicious buffet lunch.  Each table was covered in beautiful hand sewn linens and each group had one of the local women as a luncheon mate, dressed in a colorful sari and adorned with many bracelets.

Now we were on the move again, this time many, many hours driving on extremely bumpy roads again until we finally reached our village camp retreat quite late in the afternoon.  Here we were assigned a tent cabin where we all were able to freshen up for a minute before being ushered to a campsite and offered refreshing glasses of wine or beer and popcorn, of all things!  As the sun set, we were treated to a fireside group of dancers and musicians who performed for us, all male.  A wonderful Indian buffet was served in a large dining tent afterwards. We were all happy to retire to our tents for the night, although I had to sleep in my clothes with a pile of blankets on top since I was freezing cold, loose fillings chattering. We were asked to rise early and dress warmly as we were in store for a treat. 

We had a parade of camels and their handlers marching toward us after breakfast and each of us who were riding them were dressed with the appropriate headdress, the men in turbans and the women in colorful floral head and shoulder wraps artfully tied near our hearts. I thought I was so dainty throwing one leg over the camel’s back and hoisting myself comfortably onto the pillowed saddle.  We were all told how to hold on so the camel could rise up, bumping us way forward and then way back, and suddenly we were off - around and about, through village farms and fields, cantering lightly in the seat I was feeling like Ann of Arabia!  When it was time to alight, there was nothing dainty about having one leg on the ground and the other still thrown across my camel’s back when he suddenly decided to get up and with me still half attached!  I yelled “whoa there boy” and luckily others came running to my aid.  He settled down on the ground again and I hopped off with as much grace as it is possible to have with someone lifting your leg over a camel’s rear hump.

We’re off to Agra and the Taj Mahal in the next installment, but this brief video gives credence to the sights and sounds of a typical Indian street.....

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