I’m happy to report that I have just survived a 12-day trip thru northern India. It all started as a pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal, which sat atop my father’s bucket list for the last 50 years. My mom had her own reasons for going: she’d journeyed to the Taj in 1967 with her mom and wanted a re-creation of that moment. So they researched all the options and signed the three of us up for a tour run by Tauck.
It is said that it’s the people that make the place. And in this case that meant being with my amazing and adventurous parents, and it also meant being with 32 other hardy souls, who chose, for their own reasons, to make this trek across India. But it quickly became clear that the bright lights of India were not really those of our group, but the faces we met along the way: the kind smiles, small waves, lilting voices and namaste bows. The genuine warmth, patience and grace of this welcoming and inviting culture enveloped us in one big om shanti shanti shanti. And it felt good.
We managed to cover 5 major cities of historical significance in 11 days. We began in the capital city of New Delhi with the highlights there being Humayun’s tomb and the Gandhi Smriti Museum. Gandhi’s quote of “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony” struck a chord as we placed our feet in his final footsteps. And we all began to understand how an overarching belief in karma is a guiding force to happiness in this sub- continent that comprises 1/5 of humanity and holds 5000 years of historical significance.
Day two was spent exploring Old Delhi and the Red Fort, rich in both history and architectural delights. Upon leaving it, we were caught up in throngs of hawkers amid the wildly overpowering stink of the sidewalk. It was a bizarre mix of urine comingled with burning incense, cow dung and hints of the flowering frangipani trees overhead.
A loitering cow to our left, wild dog to the right, I found myself stuck in the middle beneath the relentless sun while sweat poured down my spine and pooled inside my sneakers. It took everything I had not to rip off all my “India appropriate” clothing and jump into the bacteria-filled fountain in front of me. But instead, our little group happily doled out 100 rupees apiece to the sweet tempered peddlers for handcrafted fabric fans to combat the oppressive heat.
My head began to spin with questions. Why are tank tops and shorts so taboo in this country of unbearable heat? Why is there so much garbage everywhere? Why is it so dusty? Why can’t (won’t) they contain all these cows and dogs? Why are the buildings in such bad shape? Why, in this heat, do these women wear such heavy cloth wrapped in layers upon layers around their bodies? Why is it okay for men to urinate everywhere? But most importantly, with all of this being the case, why is there an overall sense of peace and contentment? That is the ultimate conundrum. In the end, with no real answers, but fabric fans in hand, we forged ahead, back onto our air-conditioned tour bus.
Once back on the bus, our guide talked of India under British rule and the country’s universal love of cricket. She spoke of the ongoing issue of the “untouchables”, who are low-caste people forced to remove accumulated human waste from latrines.
Every human rights hair on the back of my neck stood up at that. Then she spoke of the young workforce, growing middle class and widespread government corruption. She spoke of the Hindu belief system, or dharma, and the efforts by believers to build up and attain moksha. Our American spirits were shifting uncomfortably in our bus seats as we tried to wrap our heads around actually believing that “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
Our guide went on to mention how common arranged marriages still are, how robust the IT industry is and how extensive India’s natural resources are. Then she finished off by pointing to a few free roaming cows in the road saying “they’re smart and know to come home at the end of the day” but then added “it’s sometimes tricky to get them to leave highway medians though, because they are all high on exhaust fumes and the addiction makes them reluctant to leave.” Ah, but of course.
The street scenes in India were truly mesmerizing head-spinners. Those sarees on the women stood out as bright and welcome beams of color amid the squalor of the squatting sidewalk commerce sandwiched between garbage piles. Cows and dogs were having a free for all amid the women selling fresh flower leis as temple offerings and vegetable markets were noticeable color pockets against the dirty beiges and greys of every street corner full of heat, dust, pollution and flies.
According to our local guide, “yes, the whole country is like a free men’s toilet, but there is an effort being made at improving both the quality and quantity of ladies toilets.” So that is encouraging.
On day three we flew to Varanasi, India’s oldest and most holy city, and the gateway to the river Ganges. We were there to witness the evening Aarti Ceremony, where they put the river to sleep. This display of devotion occurs every night all year long. I must admit that it was tough to stomach. We watched as they carried the corpses of loved ones sheathed in golden cellophane down to the river to dip them in the holy water, then they threw the bodies into huge fires that were burning all night long along the river’s edge. The ashes of these bodies were then put into the river.
The next day after tossing and turning all night trying to process those images, we went back at sunrise to watch the Waking Up of the Ganges. Practically sleepwalking, we slowly maneuvered our way down to the river by willing our way through the holy cows, the hawkers befriending us in an effort to make a sale, and beggars whose universal gestures for food and money were impossible to ignore. I had a scare with a snake charmer’s cobra that sent me flying through the street. No one runs in India, by the way.
It was an intensely impoverished street scene there by the river, filled with hunger and need and want, so that by the time we boarded the boats that slid into the river, I was an emotional wreck. Young children sleeping in the street wrapped in thin sheets, covered in flies. There were not enough rupees in my purse to make it better for me or for them.
Our little group of privilege teetered in our wooden skiff, so out of place and trying so hard to get our bearings. Then, as the sunrise coated us and everything around us in light pinks, dark pinks and golden oranges and the water around us got deeper, blacker and more still, the whole scene suddenly felt more than okay. It felt holy. And we watched in silence as the pilgrims bathed in the healing waters of the dirty river.
We made it back to the hotel drained, still trying to digest all that we had seen and felt at the River Ganges, but then headed to the airport immediately (sleep would have to wait) to fly to Khajuraho to explore a temple complex built between 950-1050AD by the Chandella Dynasty. The architecture was Hindu and stunning and I can understand why people have said it rivals Angkor Wat. It was truly phenomenal in terms of both preservation and beauty.
The next day, our fifth, was a long one for us as we travelled many hours by bus. I sat in the front seat to get the full thrill and best photos. Driving in India is a truly hair-raising experience of nearly constant swerving, near misses and close calls. I had my heart in my throat for most of it. The mayhem of the streets and highways is notorious, littered with the oddest assortment of cows, betel chewing pedestrians, meandering water buffalo, careening buses, camel drawn carts, donkeys, goats, boars, tractors, tuk-tuks and trucks. Diesel fumes, dung and dust clung together at every corner.
Road rules are at a minimum, but the few that exist are conveniently and colorfully plastered on the back of all trucks: USE DIPPER AT NIGHT, and BLOW HORN. Some joke that one can drive in India without a brake, but not without a horn. And as for dipping to stay awake at night, I guess that’s the Indian version of our highway signs that tout “Take a Break, Stay Awake.”
But the number one rule for driving well in India: do not dare hit a cow. No matter how hard it is to swerve around the animal as she sits on her haunches in the middle of the road or meanders along the median on a diesel high. We were rewarded after our long bus ride with a stop at a small village where the natural beauty of the village and villagers softened our whole group, and left us with photos that later took our breath away.
The women in that village were wearing sarees in deep luscious colors whose vibrancy screamed against the bare houses and broken buildings. They stood shyly in the oppressive heat, lingering inside doorways to their open air stone wall homes, to gaze at us, it was a stand off of two cultures sizing up countless differences between us, and it was beautiful.
The heat was oppressive. Yet there they were all wrapped up in beautiful layers of colorful material, with heads covered. I stood inside their home with the sweat trickling down my calves and every part of me wanted air conditioning and less clothing on. Many men wear long sleeve button down shirts and long dark colored pants, then sometimes add turbans, which are simply colorful sweatboxes. They trap un-Godly heat in so that when the turban is removed it’s as if you’ve taken a shower. I know this because I wore a souvenir one for a few hours, and it wasn’t pretty.
We then journeyed on to Orchha to embrace the splendor of the Cenotaphs and then drove in the dark to arrive at the Jhansi rain station. We mingled with the locals on the train platform while cows grazing on the train tracks held up our train’s departure. We finally reached Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, late at night. It was certainly an aggressive itinerary and we were all dragging by the end of that very long day through India. But the Oberoi hotel was most certainly an oasis, and we all recharged on arrival.
We slept like kings only to awaken and be among the first ones inside the grounds to witness the Taj Mahal at sunrise (by far the best time to see it). It was bathed in a gorgeous pink hue that managed to heighten the majesty and romance of this 367 year-old testament to love. And so we stood, fulfilling my dad’s bucket list and posing in the same exact spot as my mom and grandma did in 1967, with the splendor of the Taj Mahal as our backdrop. It was overwhelming to be in its magnificent presence, and so much more serene than I’d expected.
On our seventh day we headed to Jaipur, enjoying the Rajasthan country side outside our bus windows. The highlights of the Pink City (as Jaipur is affectionately known) were the Maharaja’s City Palace, a bicycle rickshaw ride, and the Maharaja’s former country home known as Rambagh Palace. The adrenaline pumping jeep ride up some steep windy roads to reach the Amber Palace was also memorable.
We were greeted at the Rambagh Palace with intricately pink-painted elephants, adorned camels, a marching band, and soldiers on horseback. I was humbled by the display in our honor. We had an incredible feast under the stars while dancers twirled for us. And that night we slept soundly in terra cotta villas nestled in lush landscaped gardens amid peacocks and exotic birds chirping in the treetops. Jaipur and it’s palaces, gems, and festivals seemed a far cry from Varanasi, indeed. Our final two days of the trip were spent in even more tranquil Udaipur, where lakeside palaces, yoga, and shopping prevailed.
India is exquisitely confounding in its contradictions and extremes. From festivals to fireworks to incessant horn honking, this country seems to be in constant celebration (and noise pollution) mode. It’s a non-stop assault on all the senses. And Diwali was still weeks away!
From a health perspective, it takes a strong gut to survive a visit to India. We had plenty of worldly travellers in our group, but even they were dropping like flies from “Delhi belly”, and resorting to Cipro and Zithromax or else they succumbed to a bout of “India pneumonia” like my mom, from breathing in the difficult air.
So be warned, India is not for the faint of heart, and I’d strongly think twice before bringing the little ones. That being said, the Hindu attitudes of patience and acceptance and overall peace that permeated our trip certainly would be powerful lessons for all Americans, including my own amazing, yet ever so slightly spoiled children.
My fellow Tauck-tarians were asking each other at the end: “would you come back?” My answer was “Yes,” but on my next trip I’d probably choose the cooler winter months and head to Mumbai, the Himalayas, or the beaches of Goa.
Returning home after India elevated my appreciation for clean crisp autumn air, the brilliant colors of fall foliage and clean tap water that’s safe to drink and to brush my teeth with. To be honest, pulling into Rye after 2 weeks in India felt like waking up on Christmas morning at age 8.
A few side notes for those who are considering a trip to India:
You can organize your own trip or do a tour. I recommend a tour if you really want to cover a lot of ground and do/see as much as possible.
The Tauck tour is all-inclusive and fantastic.
Olives restaurant in New Delhi was wonderful.
The Oberoi hotels (we stayed in 4 of them) are sensational. If you can stay in them, do so.
The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays.
Spice Jet, Jet Airways and Air India were all great. Airports were pleasant and easy.
Souvenir shopping is an adventure: especially good finds were silk and cotton scarves, pashminas, every type of jewelry, marble and jade items, dresses, blouses, purses, blankets, turbans, and elephants made from about every material–plenty of elephants!
Most definitely avoid: ice, tap water, salads and cold foods.
The masala chai tea and fresh lime soda were delicious