I find that breakfast, for an American who has been travelling throughout Asia for decades, is the most difficult local meal to adapt to. Lunches and dinners characterized by intense new flavors and peppering heat, bring a welcome and novel exoticism. However, these same flavors, so welcome in the afternoon and evening, can seem abruptly discomfiting when consumed soon after waking. The eating habits of many seasoned travelers abroad tend towards comforting and bland continental or American style breakfast foods in the morning and culinary adventures postponed to later in the day. So, it was with some trepidation, then, that while on a recent trip to Hyderabad, India, ‘The City of Pearls,’ I set out to experience a range of traditional Indian breakfast foods.

I initiated myself into Indian breakfast food with a dish of tapioca balls known as khichdi. Accustomed to eating tapioca balls in that sweet desert beverage, bubble tea, I find their toothsome texture, first firm, then yielding and chewy within, and quite enjoyable. The tapioca balls in khichdi are quite small, not much larger than a pearl. Their mild yellow translucent appearance though hid a surprising amount of hot curry flavor. The mouth feel of the small chewy orbs, interspersed with a few peas and chopped nuts, I found to be so delightful that the first small serving I took from the serving dish was soon followed by two more helpings.

Several forkfulls into my third serving I began to experience a rapidly building feeling of heat on my tongue and reached for my coffee cup to quench the flames. A dining tip likely unnecessary to those more accustomed than I am to eating spicy food for breakfast; hot coffee doesn’t help the situation! I turned instead to the cold citrus beverage locally known as sweet lime juice and got the welcome solace. A word about coffee as long as we are on the subject; I found that the drink was as popular, if not more so, than tea. I was surprised, as this area is surrounded by large and well-know tea plantations and produces and consumes more of it than any nation except China, including such notable teas as Ceylon and Darjeeling.
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Legend has it that the coffee bean made its way to India in the 16th century. Baba Budan, a Muslim from India, was making a pilgrimage to Mecca. It was there when he happened to sample the delicious and bracing beverage, and was so taken with it, that he smuggled a handful of green coffee beans back to back to his home wrapped in his sash promptly and took up cultivation.

Over time it came to be consumed in a form now often known as South Indian coffee, which is a mixture of chicory and coffee that is strongly brewed and filtered in a pair of distinctive metal cups, one having a pierced bottom. This coffee is often mixed with hot milk, then aerated, cooled, and frothed by pouring it back and forth rapidly between the two cups in dramatic fashion, with the top cup often held several feet above the bottom. If you are an aficionado of coffee, the Hyderabad version is delicious, and its preparation can be an entertaining spectacle to see as is the city itself. Hyderabad lies at the crossroads of north and south India and has played a central role in the history of the area as a center of military might, commerce, and culture in both ancient and contemporary times.
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Hyderabad is home to Fort Golkonda, the site of notable battles and gem mines that produced the Hope Diamond and other legendary gemstones. In modern times the city has emerged as a major center for the Information Technology industry. Being located astride major trade and transit routes, it’s no surprise then, that the Hyderbadi food demonstrates a distinctive blend of the languages, customs, and flavors found elsewhere in this vast, diverse, and ancient land. The cuisine is renowned throughout India, and several popular and even famous local dishes, such as biryani and hylim have spread throughout the country.
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Encouraged by my successful initial culinary foray, I went back for a second round on day two and expanded my selection of foods to add idli, daliya upma, and medu vada. Idli are a fluffy steamed white cake made from a flour of ground rice and white lentils. As with many South Indian types of bread, the grains are fermented prior to being ground into a paste and the fermentation process gives a delicious tang to the cakes that, to my American palate, was reminiscent of sourdough pancakes.
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These cakes are usually accompanied by chutney or some kind of gravy, and while I enjoyed the idli eaten plain, the ginger chutney I selected to flavor them with had such an intense flavor I had difficulty finishing it. Daliya upma is a thick savory porridge made from cracked wheat, peas and onions and flavored with herbs such as curry leaf, mustard, cumin and coriander. It was hearty, satisfying, comfort food and I surprised at how much I enjoyed the strong flavors.
Finishing off my food survey was a pleasing but bland (especially following that ginger chutney!) donut shaped lentil dumpling, medu vada. The dumpling was comprised of whole lentils and lentil flour and deep fried so perfectly that the oil it had been fried in was practically undetectable. The brown crust had a texture similar to cornmeal and offered a hint of resistance prior to yielding up the soft, warm dough beneath it. It calmed the intense flavors that had preceded it, and to my still developing appetite for strong, intensely flavored Indian breakfast foods, was the perfect ending to an enjoyable and educational meal.

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From Mumbai, India, to South Africa – this sounded like a terrific itinerary. My wife and I loved India, and South Africa was one the places topping our “to do” list. We decided to book this trip on Crystal Cruise line, one of the best, in our opinion. The 19-day voyage was part of an around-the-world cruise, with many people on for the full 120 days; others getting on for smaller segments, such as we were.

We arrived in Mumbai in March, the beginning of the hot season. As was expected, it was warm and muggy. This is a teeming town, chaotic with snarled traffic. During our three days, we had a knowledgeable tour guide and driver, however, who were able to circumvent the worst of it. With 12.5 million, it is one of the most populous cities in the world. Located on the west coast, the city has a deep natural harbor. Formerly called Bombay, the name was changed in 1995 to Mumbai after Mumbadevi, the patron goddess of the local fishermen.
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We got up early the first morning and took a city tour. Driving along, we could see the differing levels of lifestyles from block to block. We passed by slums, then through a section of garage-like store fronts with doors that slide up and down. Merchants sold everything from toilets to hardware to tires. Most proprietors live in apartments above. According to the guide, the average person purchases needs from these small convenience stores rather than going to super markets. In an adjacent block, where people of above average means live, most have domestic help. For Instance, our guide is able to hire a housekeeper and cook because labor is cheap. Her family is Hindu, consequently she is vegetarian as is much of the city’s population.
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Another block had luxury hotels. For example, there was the plush Taj Palace Hotel, where the 2008 terrorist attack took place. It was completely repaired. But now, barriers have been erected around the property, and crowds gathered to look at the site. Ironically, just a short distance away, we saw people sleeping on the streets – that’s the way India is. On our city tour some of the interesting sites were the colorful Jain Temple, with flowers strewn about among statues of gods and personifications of the planets painted on the ceiling. We then went on to the Gandhi Museum with photos and rare artifacts which gave much insight into the life of this spiritual leader. Also we passed by Dhobi Ghat outdoor laundry with its colorful rainbow array of washing hanging to dry. Clothes are washed by hundreds of laundry workers as has been the case for generations.

People we had met at our hotel had gone on the Slum Dog tour. We didn’t take it but were told about how groups are led through the Dharavi slum area where scenes from the Academy Award-winning “Slum Dog Millionaire” were filmed. Although the area is squalid, it is now also home to around 15,000 small businesses (ranging from recycling, pottery, and embroidery to bakeries, soap factories, and leather tanning). These enterprises generate some $700-million annually. It is crowded and chaotic, but its inhabitants are certainly industrious.

We stayed at the 5-star Taj Lands End Hotel, located on the sea, in an upscale area where many Bollywood film people have homes. The hotel is truly at land’s end – facing the large bay and modern bridge that now connects the main city and the “outskirts.” This Taj was built in 1999 and boasts 493 rooms and several outstanding restaurants.
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The last day in Mumbai we took a boat out to Elephanta Island, a small island an hour’s boat ride from the city center. One of the world’s most striking collections of caves and rock carvings exists here, dating from the 6th to 8th Century A.D. From the arrival dock, a narrow-gauge rail is available to take visitors to the base of the steps. (It was hot that day so we paid the small charge to ride.) From here, an uphill path leads to the site. Of course, there were stalls with trinkets all the way up. Also, monkeys were perched here and there along the sides which entertained us as we “huffed and puffed” to the top.

Although the government does little in restoration here, the art is in decent shape because of being sculpted in caves, largely protected from the elements. Once there, however, we were hardly prepared for the beauty and immensity of the sculptures of Indian deities. A critic has said that here is one of its most perfect expressions of Hindu art, particularly in the huge high reliefs in the main cave. These world famous images from mythology have been reproduced in many books.
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That afternoon, we boarded the Crystal Serenity and began to relax after our hectic stay in Mumbai. The Serenity is luxurious and spacious – 85 percent of the staterooms feature private verandahs. Delicious international food can be found in six restaurants throughout the ship. With a capacity of 1,080, the ship was about seventy percent full.

After a day of cruising, our first stop was in India’s state of Goa. At the port near the capital city, Panaji, we hired a cab for touring the area. Our driver was enthusiastic about giving us history and background.

This area was settled by the Portuguese who remained until 1961.We stopped at one of the city’s main attractions, the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Founded in 1605, it is considered one of India’s best examples of baroque architecture. Besides the vividly decorated interior, it is famed for containing the remains of St Francis Xavier, who died in 1552 in China and was eventually interred. One can see portions of his bones in a silver casket. The day we visited a lineup of pilgrims waited to pass by the coffin.

Another highlight was seeing the Mahlxmi Hindu temple, dedicated to the goddess of wealth. Inside is an impressive statue in black stone, replete with her four hands.

That night the ship was off, sailing southwest, further into the Indian Ocean. On the way to South Africa, we would stop off at the islands of Maldives, Mauritius and Reunion – all famous for water sports and scenic beauty.

Maldives is the world’s most endangered country, threatened by global warming. The rising ocean is steadily cutting away the shoreline, naturally of great concern for its citizens. To emphasize this fact, in 2009, the government held a cabinet meeting underwater. From the ship’s deck, we could, indeed, see that buildings in the capital city Male already seemed almost part of the sea.
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The diving and snorkeling here is among the world’s best, and we signed up for a delightful trip to a small islet off the coast. A shallow reef provided great fish viewing. In a “Kodak moment,” we saw a harmless black tip reef shark glide by amidst swarms of colorful fish. After this stop, we had four sea days before reaching Mauritius. This gave us plenty of time to catch up on our reading while relaxing and enjoying the ship’s amenities. During our daily laps around the deck, we always said hello to security guards on “pirate watch.” This part of the Indian Ocean is a vulnerable area.

If we wanted mental stimulation, there was a host of speakers giving talks mornings and afternoons. Among them were a couple of ex-ambassadors, a CIA member and two former FBI agents. Events in the Middle East were in the news and were a big topic, as was South Africa since apartheid. We particularly enjoyed hearing a Canadian book reviewer who vividly discussed several current best sellers.

At cocktail time and before retiring, we stopped by the Crystal Cove lounge where we heard John Mentis on piano. Mentis has been playing on ships for decades and has performed with musicians such as George Shearing. He seemingly knew every song from the past, both popular and jazz.
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The food was very good, particularly the Dover sole which we had a few times while dining in the main restaurant. In addition, we dined several times in both the Prego, the Italian restaurant, and Silk Road, featuring Asian fare. Prego’s beef carpaccio was the best; in silk Road, we were like kids in a candy store, savoring the fresh sushi and lobster dishes. There are shows nightly in the theater featuring staff productions, as well as performers brought onboard. We especially enjoyed a classical guitar player and comedian/ventriloquist.

It was soon back to port days. Mauritius and Reunion, although near each other, could not be more different. Both are part of the Mascarene Islands, formed during volcanic eruptions. Both are lush, containing mountainous peaks and waterfalls. Both have mixed race populations. However, Mauritius is a democracy, with over 50 percent of people from India. Reunion is part of France, with a large European population, afforded the benefits of a district in France.

We toured both islands by taxi and bus, always on the lookout for good snorkeling beaches. In Maruitius, it was low tide and the best spots were largely inaccessible. In Reunion, though, we ended up at St. Gilles, a wonderful beach. A reef with lots of marine life was only a short swim from the sand.
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After another day at sea, we were in Durban, South Africa. This is Zulu country, and so we signed up for a tour out to a nature park to see Zulus performing ceremonial dances. Along the way, the countryside was lovely. It was named The Thousand Hills. There were green growth and flowering trees everywhere. This city and surroundings are known for a semi-tropical climate and good beaches. Many guests took coastal excursions.
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Two days later we reached Port Elizabeth. The city is one of the major seaports in South Africa, often referred to as Africa’s Water Sport Capital. Some passengers went on trips to game parks – several for the day, others for three-days after which they would see us again in Cape Town. We had lined up a tent safari in Botswana after disembarking ship, so we opted for a local tour. Instead of going to a beach here, we signed up for the Township Experience tour. We were taken through the historically “coloured” areas, a shameful legacy of Apartheid years.

During Apartheid in the sixties, the government moved blacks from cities out to townships, which were squalid villages, the most notorious being Soweto. Since Nelson Mandela became president in the nineties, one of his missions was to move blacks to better government housing. We visited some of these areas – from the poorest to the new middle-class section.
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Taking excursions such as this can be very enlightening. It was particularly interesting talking to the township people met on foot. One stop was at a school for children 6 to 16. All were in uniforms, neat and clean. Especially gratifying was to talk to teachers working with youngsters from impoverished areas. While there, it was lunch time for the youngest. We were told that this is often the only hot meal children get during the day. Before we left, a glee club of high school students gave us a concert.

Next day, late afternoon, we arrived outside Cape Town, but 60-plus mph winds kept our ship cruising offshore for 18 hours. From the ship, the city virtually sparkled in the sun. With its hills and landmark Table Mountain in the background, it reminded us of San Francisco.
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Mid-morning next day we were able to get off. With our time in Cape Town cut back, we decided to take an open-bus tour. We saw the city sites with our climactic stop being Table Mountain. It was still too windy for us to go to the top in a cable car.

Along the coast, we passed by picture-postcard beaches and picturesque beach communities. At the end of the day, we vowed to return to Cape Town some day and have enough time travel to places outside the city, including the lovely wine country. It was near time, though, to disembark next morning and fly out to Botswana and our safari.

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There is something unique in the air of Varanasi. It has an almost palpable hum of something deeper than other places, a vibe, an emission; it actually feels holy and spiritual. That may sound corny, but I feel it very strongly, and I am drawn back to this glorious, chaotic, dilapidated city of light again and again. It is no wonder to me that Hindus aspire to be carried here after death, covered with a golden shroud, burned on a pile of wood, and their remains washed away into the holy mother Ganga.
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Rowing down that sludgy, still, soothing waterway, the early morning haze enveloping the small wooden boat, oars lapping the water, bells langing along the shore, forlorn distant chants accompanied by distorted ancient Indian music… you can almost imagine that you will indeed reach nirvana by coming here at the end of this earthly life.

 

On a recent trip, a dear friend traveled with me. She was on a quest to meet with a guru, have a ‘reading’ done, and see if one of these holy men could truly sense things about her and tell her what her future held. To this end, one morning we headed for the tiny alleys behind the Varanasi ghats for a day of shopping and self-discovery, a mission in search of spirituality and good silks.
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As we stepped on to the Assi Ghat, a young man approached, asking if we were looking for something in particular. Being the more guarded one, and very accustomed to avoiding the extremely aggressive touts throughout India, I quickly brushed past and ignored him. My friend Brigid however, replied to him straight out “I want to see a Guru!” “Madam, please follow me.” he replied, with that old school Indian hand flip and head shake, and turned to lead us into the labyrinth of alleys. We squeezed past ambling cows, avoided steaming piles, and peered into tiny dark workshops where the world famous Banaras silk was being woven on ancient looms.

 

As we walked, Brigid continued to engage the young man with questions. Earlier in the trip, I had told her about Bhang Lassi, and she now asked boldly “Do you know where we can get some Bhang Lassi? We would love to try it.” I swatted her arm in warning, I didn’t like to be so open and appear too green. “Yes, Madam. No problem. Follow me”, and we continued until we reached a small restaurant in a typically dingy unassuming alley. We stooped to enter the tiny door of the “Dinner with Music Restaurant” and had a seat at a rickety table. The young man (Vinay) spoke with what could loosely be called a waiter, and arranged our Lassi order. They brought out two glasses of the sweet milk with “spices” & crushed ice, which we sipped slowly. Brigid continued to grill Vinay about a guru, where to buy some silk scarves, etc.. while I silently surveyed the place with a watchful, suspicious eye.

 

The back room of the restaurant was a heavily curtained area with comfortable looking low couches and dim lighting. We could hear the murmuring and laughter of a few people, apparently enjoying something a bit stronger than our Lassi drink. An interesting establishment.
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The Lassi didn’t taste that great, but we may have begun to feel the Bhang effects… ever so slightly… as we sipped. That night we were to attend a huge wedding reception for a business acquaintance of mine, so Brigid thought taking some ‘to go’ for the evening wouldn’t be a bad idea. The guys packed us up two little plastic baggies filled with Lassi and closed them with a twist tie. Exactly the slapdash Indian way. We would expect nothing more. Very funny.
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Our next stop was the silk shop for some scarves and pashminas. Just down the alley from the restaurant, we were ushered into a “showroom” whose floor was covered with white sheets over soft padded futon-like cushions. We took off our shoes and sat while the silk vendor brought out hundreds of silks and snapped them open with an expert flip of his wrist, draped them over us, over themselves, over the floor. We were in soft gorgeous silk heaven, oohing and aahing, each was more beautiful than the last. At this point the Bhang is definitely kicking in. Brigid is giggling at everything, and luxuriating in the silks being draped around us. I clamp down and become even more guarded, worrying about being responsible, making sure nothing bad happens to us, getting more and more nervous as she gets looser and kookier by the minute. We finally narrow down our choices and pay way too much for the silk, because I’m anxious and not up to negotiating very strongly. Vinay receives a call on his cel phone and informs us, with exaggerated deference, “Guru Ji will see you now…”

 

Another long walk through the twistiest, turniest, dirtiest alleys I’ve ever seen. Its fascinating, but also a bit unnerving. I am REALLY paranoid and worried at this point, calling out, “Brig? Maybe we should just forget it, huh?” and she shrugs it off “Come on, this is great!” She follows Vinay closely and I shuffle along behind them reluctantly, actually snapping picture after picture to document where we’ve gone, so there will be a record if we happen to get lost or disappear! Paranoid or what? Why do I have this kind of response to Bhang, while Brigid has all the fun!?

 

We arrive at the Guruji Ashram, a claustrophobic little room with steep stairway leading to who knows what. Vinay disappears to fetch the guru and we are left alone. “Brig, this is too creepy, let’s just leave!” “Marni come on, just relax for godssake! This is so crazy!” Brigid laughs. But she is spacing out, deep into the haze and hilarity of the Lassi. I feel like she is not paying close enough attention to recognize that this is really weird. We are at the end of an empty, ominous alley with no one around, and we have no idea where we are after so many twists and turns inside the maze that is this neighborhood, and what the hell are we getting into here anyway?

 

We wait and wait for 45 minutes for the revered “Guru Ji” to arrive. Vinay fields a constant stream of phone calls, telling us after each one, “only 10 more minutes”. They are on typical Indian time. A young boy comes through the alley carrying a tall stack of small clay pots, for planting flowers. He offers us one as a cup, and a tiny accomplice holds out a dented metal teapot to us. “Some Tea, Madam?” Even Brigid, the freewheeling carefree one, turns it down with a shudder. “Noooo thank you.”

 

Vinay tells us, with obvious admiration, that Guru Ji is very famous around the world and has many followers including “Madam Goldie Hawn”. Many people seek him out and ask for his counsel. He is very powerful and his father and grandfather were also Guru Ji’s before him.

 

The master finally arrives. He is a plain, pot-bellied man, not particularly striking in any way, but very calm and quiet. We both join him up the tiny stairs in a little half-room with that same padded futon-like flooring, and a ceiling only 5 feet high. Extremely claustrophobic. He asks if we want our readings private, and we say no; it’s okay if she hears mine and vice versa. There was no way I was going to leave Brigid alone up there with a strange man! She begins by abruptly asking Guru Ji about Goldie Hawn, and he is only too happy to tell us that he is a very close friend of her and her family, and takes down a photo album to show us some evidence, I mean, pictures. The crumpled, faded photos showed someone that could have been Goldie Hawn, at some sort of picnic, and there was an indian man near her, but he looked nothing like Guru Ji. I shrug and dismiss it in my mind, thinking, this guy is *so* full of it!!

 

Guru Ji asks Brigid to write down her birthday in a log book, and he looks it up in another well-worn book filled with tables and charts. He takes her hand and studies her palm. He pauses, looks at me, and says calmly, “You will have to leave. Your energy is extremely negative and it is affecting my ability to connect with Brigid.” I am shocked but it’s so true! I am feeling entirely distrustful and I’m projecting my non-believer bullshit vibe quite strongly. Brigid assures me she is fine, and I retreat down the steep stairway to the waiting area. As I sit there, I slowly abandon the distrust and negativity, and work on feeling calm, positive and open. The Bhang Lassi is washing over me, and I relax and let it go.

 

After about 30 minutes, Brigid comes walking down. She simply looks at me, shaking her head, eyes wide, and says “Marni you HAVE to do it, you must have him do a reading, its so worth it, you’ll be glad you did, trust me!”

 

I had decided I was not going to see the guru, but looking at the expression on my friend’s face made me change my mind. I went up and sat across from Guru Ji, wrote down my birthday and time of birth, and he took my hand and gazed at it meaningfully. He asked me what I wanted to know, and I replied “Just tell me about where I am at this point in my life, tell me about myself.” Kind of a test to see if he was the real deal or not, you know?

 

As he studies my hand, he tells me things like this– I am a strong, hard working farm girl. My family is very close, but I do not live close to them. I have one brother and one sister. I had one chance to be married, (and I thought okay, here it comes, the predictable comments about not meeting the right guy, hoping for love like some pathetic middle aged sap, you will meet someone soon, etc….) but he says insightfully “but you did not want to be married.” I had to speak up when he said that– “Oh no, that’s not true, no one ever asked me to marry them, believe me.” and he calmly replied yes, there was one person, but you let him go. He moves his hand in circles in front of his stomach. “You have never had a child… and you don’t want any children. You could still have a baby, but you don’t want to.” The hairs on my neck are starting to stand up– he would definitely not say something as specific as this if he was faking in generalities to a woman of my age, as this is a pretty rare choice in life direction! “You are a very creative person, and you hold a high position at your job, you have three people that work with you closely, and you teach them your creative methods.”

 

He went on, “You are a very caring person, very kind, and you are always taking care of those around you, but you give too much, you don’t get back the love that you give out, there is no one that takes care of YOU…” when I hear this, I am surprised to feel my eyes well up and tears spill over and down my cheeks. (Now, this statement could probably be true about any typical woman, we are all the caretakers of our family and friends and feel like we give til it hurts, but he obviously hit an emotional button in me.) When he sees my tears, he pats my hand gently and gives it a little squeeze, smiling kindly at me.

 

There were other small observations, many seemingly generic statements. But they were all true for me. I knew he was real, and he was good. Everything he said was exactly right and so amazingly accurate– I am the head of my division at work and teach three girls that work for me how to artfully create jewelry programs the way I do, I grew up on a farm, my family all lives in Wisconsin and I live in California. One brother, one sister. I don’t like children and never wanted to have any, I never had any desire to marry, and never will.

 

Guru Ji went on to tell me that I needed to take better care of myself, attain better balance within, open up more to my creative nature. He told me I was being ruled by Pitta (the ‘heat’ Dosha–which was what an Ayurvedic doctor told me just three days earlier). He said I had too much fire inside me, more fire and heat than other people, and I needed to manage that by eating less red meat, and avoiding spicy foods and red wine. (I am constantly ‘too hot’ wherever I am, and sweating when others are complaining about the cold!) In addition to the dietary ecommendations, he prescribed that I obtain an image of Hanuman, and hang it where I would see it every morning. I should repeat positive statements about my life, about things I want to achieve, while concentrating on Hanuman’s image. (Hanuman is the monkey god– and I am completely obsessed with monkeys by the way) I should get a talisman of Tigereye stone, and wear it close to my heart.

 

As the reading ended, I felt transformed and amazed. I was completely relaxed, and knew for a fact that this man had a very special gift. He really could sense things about people, read them, and tell them incredible details that he had absolutely no way of knowing, outside of getting them directly from that person’s mind and body. Guru Ji’s demeanor had also changed– from a flat, distant regard, to an incredible kind of fondness and warmth toward me. He took both my hands, and squeezed them firmly, looking into my eyes, “You will come back to see me again. You are such a lovely, beautiful person!!” He reached into his bag of tricks and handed me a small gold plaque with Sanskrit symbols. He told me to hang it close to my Hanuman image, that it will also help me with balance in life. I should read the symbols in clockwise order each morning.
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The cost for all this? 800 Rupees. About $18. Guru Ji told me he runs a school and most of the money goes to support it. It was probably an outrageous ‘tourist price’ to pay, but obviously its just not that much money so I didn’t mind.

 

When I rejoined Brigid downstairs, I must have had the same look on my face that she did after her reading. We looked at each other and nodded, turned and walked out into the alleys, heading for a main street where we could find a rickshaw back to our hotel. We said nothing. Both of us were so blown away and seemed to be in some sort of buzzy trance. We hopped into a bicycle rick, and she looked at me, holding up her palm to me– “I can’t talk about it right now. All I can say is– the dude is real.” and I replied solemnly, “Yes, he is real.” We rode on in silence, each of us alone with our thoughts, almost oblivious to the insanity, noise and chaos around us.

 

Was it the Bhang Lassi? Was it only an illusion that the experience was so incredible? No, it just couldn’t be. Later when we felt a bit of normalcy return, we reviewed the facts and points he related to each of us. Brigid’s reading was very different from mine and we compared notes to see if he had some formulaic comments that everyone got– we couldn’t find any. He told her very different things, (again, all of which were frighteningly accurate), and nothing overlapped. I said, “Yeah, but he probably said you’ll be back to see him again, right?” she shook her head, “No, he never said that.”

 

The reading did not give us anything as tangible as a “prediction” or direction in life, but there was something about being in his presence, about him seeing who you were, that was very affecting, calming– almost mesmerizing. If anything, I believe the Lassi made us relax, calm down, and open up– somehow made us more receptive to the whole process. Guru Ji was definitely a man with senses that were highly evolved, way beyond the average person’s perceptions. He emanated some sort of peace and kindness that seeped into your own spirit when he peered inside you. A wonderful warm glow of calm and happiness stayed with us throughout that evening–probably as much from the reading as from the extra baggies of Lassi…

 

I have never experienced anything like that meeting with Guru Ji. And yes, I will be back to visit him again someday.

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After spending time touring the ancient Hindu temples in the Khajuraho, the Panna National Park, and the countryside around the Khajuraho area, we boarded an Air India flight to Varanasi, the holiest city of Hinduism where every Hindu is supposed to make a pilgrimage to join in holy services, pray, and dip in the Ganges River once in his or her life and where every Hindu wishes to be cremated. This city was formerly known as Benares, and we had read so much about it, this was to be the highlight of our India tour. Our SmarTours guide and director of our tour Arvind had told us a great deal about this holy city. We arrived at the Varanasi Airport, which was brand new and had just opened two weeks before.

Since our plane arrived on time, we were able to make the optional tour to see the holy services on the river that took place after sundown. We went by bus to the center of Varanasi directly from the airport. Our bus took us as close to the Ganges River as was possible, but because of the crowded narrow streets that led down to the river, we had to ride by bicycle rickshaw taxis, which were not quite as scary as the noon rush hour ride in Jaipur. The twilight streets were very busy with traffic, tourists, religious pilgrims and people shopping for necessities before going home to prepare evening meals.
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Our bicycle rickshaws brought is to within about a half mile from the river, and we had to walk down a lane through huge crowds and hundreds of hawkers and little shops, overhead twinkling Christmas-type lights were hung for the pilgrims coming to the services along the river. At the end of the lane we were confronted with a long, wide set of stairs that proceeded down to the river. Beggars, many being deformed and crippled, sat along each side of the stairs with outstretched palms, and numerous hawkers besieged us, attempting to sell us souvenirs. We hurried past them with our eyes averted and feeling terribly guilty as we reached our large, white, wooden boat to go out onto the Ganges, beyond the crowds to watch the ceremony.
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A high cement platform ran along the edge of the Ganges. On the platform seven umbrellas were set for the priests’ altars with incense burning and overhead were strings of bells. We carefully boarded our boat, one of many for tourists, and our two oarsmen rowed us out away from the many moored by shore. We could see that in each direction up and down the river about a quarter mile was completely filled with pilgrims on the Ghat steps. The priests in white performed rituals of bells, incense, smoky lamps, chanting, prayers, fire, in unison for about a half hour with pilgrims joining in singing. Farther down were other priests and other services going on simultaneously at a large Ashram, with priests in orange robes. We were given little cardboard bowls containing orange mums and a candle to make a prayer and float on the Ganges in the dark. It was meaningful and pretty, but the image in our minds was marred by the river being so polluted.
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After the priests stopped performing, the men rowing our boat took us down river just a little way to one of the cremation sites. Although the cremations continue 24/7, they are best seen at night. As we watched the activities immediately in front of us,* we saw four bodies lying on the steps, each covered in an elaborate shiny colored cloth with gold trim. The mourning family lay the body down and then left, except for the oldest male who was dressed in white and helped the priest dip the covered body three times into the Ganges and then unwrap the colored cloth, leaving the body wrapped in a thin white cloth. The body is placed onto the pile of wood, and the priest covered the body with more wood and sticks, after which the male mourner lit the funeral pyre and the cremation attendant tended the fire until it had consumed the body. There were four pyres burning and several more being prepared as we watched, and this was only one of many such scenes going on continuously up and down the Ganges, especially at Varanasi. The smoke was thick with an unfamiliar smell but not repulsive as we anticipated. As each cremation was finished, the ashes were raked to the edge of the Ganges to be washed down stream. We could not help but believe this even added to the already overly polluted state of the river.
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Having gotten up early in the morning to visit the Panna National Park and a farm village outside the town of Khajuraho, flown from Khajuraho to Varanasi, and gone to the Holy Ceremonies by the Ganges, once we arrived at our hotel, a four star Radisson, and checked in and ate the nice meal provided by SmarTours, we turned in for the night, ready to arise early the next morning to experience sunrise on the Ganges.

In Varanasi the greeting is Om or Hari-om instead of Namaste, as they say everywhere else. We returned before dawn by bus to the Ganges setting of the night before, but it is very different and quiet now. Many pilgrims and many locals come for their morning’s spiritual activities in predawn, which is best for meditation and prayer. The fresh energy current helps you to concentrate the mind for meditation or prayer. The locals who come to dip in the river change their clothes afterwards and carry holy water to a temple for prayer. Again we got into the wooden boat and drifted along the shore to see the morning activities.
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Many people, even businessmen who changed out of suits, bathe in this very polluted river, men in underwear or swim trunks and the women wrapped in a simple sari. Some wash their hair, and even brush their teeth. Unbelievable, because it is filled with filth from animals, people, trash, ashes, absolutely a cesspool. This oldest of rituals completely ignores modern hygiene!!! As part of the required pilgrimage, they go to the Temple of Shiva for prayer. If a person can’t pay for the trip, the government and airline stipends help.

Various temples are dedicated to various gods, and that deity’s statue is in the middle made of stone, wood, or metal. Brahmin priests originally made ceremonies in the temple and invited the Spirit of the Supreme god to come into the inert statue. Since this must be repeated each day, one Brahmin family stays near the temple and brings breakfast to the statue. Then others can knock and then come in to worship. The people bring offerings of food, flowers, money, but it is okay to come with none because the god has no connection with these offerings. The priest keeps half, and half is given back to devotees to eat or keep with prishad, (the blessing of the teaching.) Priests are married and it is a family job to keep the tradition going.
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We had to walk about a mile through town, which was just waking up and we experienced only a few hawkers and beggars along the way. Even though the traffic was light at that time of day, at one point I realized I was walking in a street beginning to fill with bikes, tuk-tuks, cows, cars, buses, trucks, pedestrians, hawkers, and businesses on the border of the street opening. Drains on each side were clogged with trash, and I was aware of the Indian advice I received: “Ignore the traffic and trust they will miss you, or if they HAVE to they will stop the car right before they hit you.” It was blissfully peaceful for a moment when I realized I was not horrified and in terror, but I quickly lost that bliss when a car bumper almost made contact with me and honked as a motorcycle flew past. Wow, I have been here too long! Today is Thanksgiving 2010, and I am so thankful for all the conveniences that surround me back at home in the US.
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We all wish we could help all the pitiful beggars along the way at any time of day or night. One man in our group went along last night handing out 10 rupee notes (5cents) as we went along, and quickly beggars surrounded him in a frightening way. We would like to buy some trinkets to help them and for souvenirs, but if we even look at them once, the hawkers follow and hound us, polite but incessant. To our surprise, though, in India we did not encounter any pick-pocketing. We always feel safe but just followed and overwhelmed, and if you buy one item, the hawkers persist with more and others join them because you are now officially a customer.

Varanasi was the final city on our India part of the SmarTours tour, as we flew to Nepal from Varanasi before returning to the US. Experiencing the scenes along the Ganges from the night prayer rituals to the cremations to the sunrise activities gave us an even deeper knowledge of the Indian culture.
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After experiencing the Golden Triangle of India with its cities of Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and the relics of the era of Maharajas, the next experience SmarTours had for us was traveling by train from Agra to Jhansi and then on to Khajuraho by bus. Our terrific director and tour guide, Arvind, told us we would be getting to the train station well before our train was scheduled to leave but that trains in India are not known to run on time and there might be a wait at the station. On arriving at the train station, he had us stay sitting in the bus while he checked on the status of our train to Jhansi, as he said seating in the station was next to none. As we waited in the train station parking lot our hearts went out to the hawkers and beggars that circulated around our bus. A group that included several mothers and their children were lying under blankets on the ground near our bus, having probably spent the night on the hard asphalt in preparation for a day of selling cheap trinkets or begging.
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When we went into the station and out onto the platform beside the tracks, we found ourselves in a large crowd of waiting passengers that stretched all along the tracks. Vendors had small kiosks set up along the platform to sell food, newspapers and magazines. We were at first told the train was about 30 minutes late but later found out this was very optimistic as our train eventually arrived 2 hours late. Several trains arrived in the station during our wait, and we watched in amazement as the third class cars where literally crammed with passengers, to the point of those that could not get inside the car stood pressed together like sardines at the door to the car.
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Once our train arrived, we found our first class car a lot like the commuter trains in the northeast of the US, except that the restrooms were outfitted with squat toilets that emptied directly onto the tracks. Our trip to Jhansi took a couple of hours, but we were told the trip by bus would have taken up to 12 hours on very rough roads. Once we got to Jhansi, we were met by a SmarTours bus and continued our trip to Khajuraho.
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Along the way we stopped for a break at the palace complex build by the Bundela rulers in the 16th and 17th century. We walked along a street of colorful shops that brought us to an ancient, granite bridge, which crossed the Betwa River and led to the entrance of the fortress that surrounds the two palaces: Jehangir Mahal and Raj Mahal. These were built during the highpoint of medieval Islamic architecture, but emptiness of the deserted and unused buildings brought on an eerie feeling as I explored the rooms, passages and towers of a bygone era. While we looked around on our own, there were only a few other tourists who entered the complex and these were mostly Indian.
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At one point I came upon three Indian women in beautiful saris seated in one of the palace’s courtyards, and I envisioned the grandeur the place must have possessed in the time of the ancient rulers. Finding my way through a labyrinth of passages and stairs, I climbed up the upper walls of the fortress and ascended a tower that gave me a wonderful view of the surrounding area. I could see a large ancient Hindu temple across the river, which appeared to standout in opposition to the impermanence of the Muslim rulers that built this complex.
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Late in the evening we finally made it to Kajuraho and checked into the beautiful four star Chandala Taj Hotel, which was lovely and very clean. Our twin room had a modern bath, and SmarTours had ordered a free dinner buffet for us. Feeling pretty exhausted from the long day of travel we hit the bed right after supper, waking up the next morning to a beautiful sunny day and feeling refreshed and ready to go. Arvind had told us we would be visiting a temple area that morning, and our first thoughts were, “Oh, another Hindu temple. How could they be any different from the others we had seen and been to?”
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A local guide met us on the bus and took us along with Arvind to the entrance to the temple area. When we walked through the gate, everyone gasped in awe at what spread out before us, an unbelievably wonderful and amazing area of 25 Hindu temples, which have only in this century been discovered beneath the jungle growth and restored as a World Heritage Site. This is one of the aspects of the India we had hope to see: pristine in its green park-like surroundings with trees and flowers and incredibly designed structures. The guide explained much about these temples, which were built in early 800 AD and are amazingly intricate in hand-carved stone designs.
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They are the only ancient buildings discovered with a written history in Sanskrit telling about the times, the religion, and the way of life, and how these structures were built. Sanskrit is still the Hindu language, so the carved history can easily be read. Then, the entire history, which is told is words, is also in pictures carved into the elaborate stones with men and women and animals going about daily life on one level of the buildings. On another level is the picture story of the wars and the kings. Another level showed their ways of building and their ways of worship, and the gods were depicted plentifully. On most of the other levels were intricately carved stones vividly illustrating the gods and people enjoying the various positions of the Kama Sutra Art of Love, which is a thousands of years old parallel to the 20th century book The Joy of Sex. The guide was very funny in his monologue as he would point out various very pornographic scenes and explain them. Gods and goddesses can be distinguished from people by their size and their multiple arms. Humans are smaller and have only two arms.
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We spent about an hour in the explanatory lecture and then were free for another hour to explore the many temples to various gods and goddesses, each with different but similar themes displayed in intricate carvings as well as undecorated stones extending on up to complete the pyramids which were about 15 stories high and topped with a rounded pinnacle stone. The most overwhelmingly amazing thing is the discovery made when one of the pyramids had to be taken apart to be restored… Each pyramid is put together by interlocking blocks like a huge set of Leggos hooked together with the cap stone at the top being actually screwed in to hold it all together through wind, rain, fire, and earthquake for all these centuries! This was the most amazing historical site we have seen in all our travels and beautifully restored, with most of it the original stones. Of course, we had to buy a deck of Kama Sutra cards from the hawkers outside the gate.

Next we drove a short distance around Khajuraho to visited a Jain Temple, all white with simple domes. Jainism is the belief that all life is Spirit and therefore sacred, even insects. The Jains always walk, usually sweeping the ground in front of them so as not to harm an insect, and have no transportation; therefore, Janism is unique to India since it cannot be transported to other countries. It is a new religion in the last 130 years, which believes absolutely in total non-violence. Jain monks eat only vegetables but never a root vegetable because they might hurt an underground worm or insect in digging it.
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Before we moved on to our hotel, we visited a lovely jewelry showroom, which is government sponsored and where everything is guaranteed. This town is very near the precious stone mines of India, and the jewelry here was exquisite and expensive, along with many other lovely Indian items for sale. SmarTours found before we arrived in Khajuraho that the Hotel Taj Chandela had been totally reserved for a wedding that was to take place the second night SmarTours had tried to book our reservations, so Arvind had arranged for us to stay the second night at the 6 star LaLit Temple View Hotel and had our luggage transferred to this hotel while we toured the temple areas. We had our afternoon free to shop, go for an ayurvedic massage treatment, or enjoy the beautiful swimming pool and grounds of the hotel.

After supper we went to a theater presentation of the various ancient dances that have been practiced through the ages by various groups throughout the area. One dancer performed classical dances of India, each movement being very exacting and similar to what we had seen in classical Japanese and Chinese dance, with the movement, gestures and positions of hands and arms and legs becoming symbolic.
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The following morning about half the tour group got up very early and went out four to a jeep to Panna National Park, which is located just a short distance from Khajuraho on the Ken River. We arrived before sunrise and were met by guides that rode along in each vehicle to give us information about the wildlife and vegetation throughout the park. At one time the park was a habitat of a many Bengal tigers, but the number had declined to the point that tigers were seldom seen. As we began to travel around the park, the sun rose over the eastern horizon casting a golden tint to the foliage. We did see a number of Indian antelope and deer along with large groups of monkeys and numerous unusual birds. We ate breakfast at a picnic area along the Ken River and left the park after about a two-hour tour.
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On our way back to Khajuraho and our hotel we were taken to a typical farming village in the countryside and visited the home of a farm family. We were able to view the way of life in a rural village in India. Like all the places we had visited in India, the lack of adequate water sources was evident. Wherever we passed a stream of water or a well with a hand pump, men, women, and children were congregated to bath, wash clothes and cooking utensils, and fill containers for use at home. Farm animals were also seen drinking and wading alongside the people in the streams.
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The home we visited was a small, two-room structure with a covered porch and dirt floor in which one room was used to store feed and grain for people and livestock and was the place where the family slept and stored their few possessions on a crude shelf and wall hangers. The porch area of the house had a small fireplace where meals were prepared. The children from the family and neighborhood surrounded us with smiling faces and outstretched palms, and as we handed out ten rupee notes, which amounted to about 5 cents US, one would have believed we were giving away hundreds.
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Our jeep drivers took us back to the hotel, and unlike the villagers we had just visited, we took warm showers, put on clean clothes and went down to eat a filling meal before heading for the Khajuraho airport and flying on to the present day spiritual center of the Hindu religion: Varanasi and the Ganges River. Please sign up free at the top of the page for our next issues.

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Our travel by bus from Delhi to Jaipur was slow because of the condition of the road and having to navigate through many small towns along the way that were crowded with people, trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and cows. But this gave us our first look at the real living conditions for a majority of the people of India outside the main cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Our SmarTours guide Arvind helped to enjoy the long trip by entertaining us with historical as well as cultural facts and pointing out the key points of interest we passed.
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We made a rest and lunch stop at a roadside restaurant, which served us at tables in a large outdoor garden area. We were introduced to and enjoyed Indian samosas (deep-fried pastry triangles filled with spiced vegetables), pukuras, and Indian Kingfisher beer. It gave us a chance to become better acquainted with the other members of our tour group and was the beginning of friendships that have lasted throughout and after the trip. The ancient Arable Mountains were in view, but they are unimpressive, low hills. These mountains are said to be some of the oldest mountains on earth.
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At one point our bus driver pulled to the side of the road for us to see camel farm. The delighted herdsmen gathered the camels in our direction as we snapped pictures and, of course, indicated that we should pay them for the photographs. Getting paid to allow a picture to be taken is a key way for a great many of the poor of India to make money. Later that afternoon before reaching Jaipur the bus again pulled over for some panhandlers in the form of a large group of monkeys standing on a wall beside the road with palms extended. This was quite a sight to see these rhesus monkeys begging for food from passing vehicles. The government had relocated them because they were invading Jaipur houses in gangs. Some of our group threw chips to the monkeys, who ate and fought over these morsels, revealing the dominant males who patrolled their sections of the wall.
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On reaching Jaipur in the state of Rahjastan, a city of a little over 2.6 million people, we checked into the Golden Tulip Hotel. After dinner Arvind took anyone interested to a nearby Hindu temple to see a communal prayer ritual. Crossing the busy street was frightening! After taking off our shoes, we entered the temple where we were greeted, welcomed, and allowed to view the service as well as take pictures. The members of a family had prepared the main altar of flowers, food morsels and burning incense, and a young man in a white robe and saffron colored sash proceeded to the various altars around the walls of the temple, lighting candles and uncovering the various sculpted god figures. Three men sat on the floor with musical instruments and began playing music as more and more people entered the temple and the service began. The communal prayer ritual involved chanting of mantras, singing, clapping hands, and the ringing a large bell. The ceremony was focused on praising.
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The next morning we set out for our excursion to the Amber Fort. On our way we passed Hawa Mahal or “Palace of the Winds” in the Old City. The Hawa Mahal is a five-store pink colored, delicately cut sandstone building of shuttered windows that had allowed the women of the Palace of the past to view the city activities without being seen. Jaipur is known as the pink city because of the pink color of the sandstone structures of the Old City.
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Traveling out of Jaipur to the north, we came to some rugged hills and the town of Amber, the ancient capital of Rahjastan up until 1728. The Amber Fort was begun in 1592 by a Maharaja Man Singh, a commander in the army of the famous ruler Akbar. We lined up in pairs to climb to the platform from which we perched ourselves on the wooden seat on back of an elephant and enjoyed a long, bumpy ride up the steep ramp into the Amber Fort. The Fort and Palace cover a large area with the walls of the fortification circling far out through the rugged mountains, resembling the Great Wall of China. The grandeur of the distant past of the Maharajas can well be experienced in these surroundings.
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In the afternoon we had a bicycle rickshaw ride through the snarling traffic of Jaipur’s Old City. The ride is not for the faint of heart as our rickshaw bicycle driver guided us frighteningly close in and out of motorcycles, cars, buses, trucks and other rickshaws, pedaling vigorously in order to keep up with the movement of the vehicles all around us. We circled throughout the Old City, passing the huge, elaborate gates in the ancient walls and merging with the oncoming traffic at various roundabouts. When we got down from our perch on the rickshaw and caught our breath, we took off walking to explore the bazaar with all the colorful shops, but within minutes of starting our walk we were besieged by shopkeepers and street vendors thrusting various items in our face and demanding we buy or come into their shop.
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After another comfortable night in the hotel Golden Tulip and a large breakfast buffet, we set out on our bus ride to the city of Agra, to complete our tour of the golden triangle of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra. After a couple of hours we stopped to tour a Fatehpur Sikri. This was once a magnificent fortified ancient city and capital of the Mughal Empire between 1571 and 1585, during the period of the powerful Emperor Akbar. Akbar built three palaces here, one for his Hindu wife, one for his Muslim wife, and one for his Christian wife. The capital had to be abandoned when there were severe water shortages. This is a well preserved World Heritage Site and well worth spending some time visiting.
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We arrived at the hotel Jaypee Palace in Agra just before suppertime. This magnificent hotel had long marble floored corridors and entry ways, acres of grounds, gardens and walkways surrounded by a large wall, a large swimming pool and several excellent restaurants as well as a spa and workout room. The luxury and comfort of such a place was in such a contrast to the living conditions of the rest of the Indian population that we had a difficult time believing we were in the same country in which we had been traveling throughout the day. Even though the tour was only through its fourth day, we had seen so many sights and been exposed to so much of India’s culture we could not help feeling we had been traveling for twice that time.
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The next morning was our time to visit the world famous Taj Mahal. Having seen pictures of this famous Wonder of the World over and over through the years , I felt that seeing it in person could not be more than being able to say that I had been there. But when I actually moved through the large arch of the entrance gate building and stared out at the gleaming, white marble structure, I could not suppress the awe I felt. This is not just another pretty building. This is truly a huge piece of art built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjehan in 1630 to enshrine mortal remains of his favorite wife and queen, Mumtaz Mahal’s. I was entranced at the perfect symmetry and balance achieved in this work of art, not to speak of the artistry of the inlaid designs of semi-precious stones and the bas-relief sculpted into the walls. The Taj Mahl took 22 years and some 20,000 workers to complete, and six years before its completion, the Emperor Shahjehan was imprisoned in Fort Agra for the rest of his life for spending so much of the state’s money on building this and other buildings. He was only able to view this masterpiece from over a half mile’s distance away. He is buried in the Taj Mahal along with the wife for which it was built.
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After leaving the Taj Mahl, we traveled to Fort Agra that stands along the Yamuna River as does the Taj Mahl. Fort Agra is one of the finest Mughal forts. Emperor Akbar began building this fort in 1565. You should not miss visiting this after seeing the Taj Mahl. Fort Agra figures into key moments in the history of India from the time of Akbar down to India’s occupation by the British. Viewing back along the river while standing on the Fort Palace’s balcony we were touched by the thoughts of Emperor Shahjehan standing there and only able to view the far distant Taj Mahl, his life masterpiece.
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Here in Agra is the only place in the world where intaglio (cut stone inlaid into marble) work is done in this way, and the artisans’ method has been handed down from father to son for sixteen generations. We went to the artisans’ workshop and saw a video of the famous Murana Mines, where the hardest marble in the world has been mined for centuries by hand. Today there is some mechanization but it is still backbreaking work. Next we went across to the intaglio workshop where the young men, who have learned from their father’s trade how to do this, were working. It was both amazing to see and broke our hearts because these boys begin as children and by late thirties have completely crippled their arm and shoulder and fingers, which grow huge calluses, and they have to stop working. Then what means of support do they have, with no medical or social help from the government?
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After a lunch of delicious Indian curry in a downtown eatery, Bonnie and I walked to an indoor mall a block away. The mall was two-stories and resembled malls in the US in the 1970s. We encourntered one interesting aspect. I was wearing a backpack and Bonnie was carrying her purse, and when we started into a large grocery store, we had to put purse and backpack into a clear plastic bag that zipped up and padlocked and was only unlocked for us to get our possessions out when we exited the store. This had to mean shoplifting was a big problem.

We returned to our luxurious Jaypee Palace Hotel in a three-wheel motorized rickshaw tuk-tuk, which is supposed to carry two passengers plus the driver but was often seen with whole families crammed into the passenger seat. Our driver dropped us at the gate, and the guards checked our hotel key to be sure we were hotel guests before letting us through the gate. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the restful setting of the hotel gardens in preparation for our travel by bus and then train to Khajuraho the next day. Read more about India in our April issue.

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Over the years we have traveled in most of the continents around the globe and usually did our own self guided tours, but the prospect of taking on a travel venture on our own through India had seemed daunting. Since we had always wanted to visit India because of the country’s rich history as well as our curiosity about the Hindu religion’s spiritual aspect, we decided that if we went we would need to do it on a guided tour. Several of our friends had done tours with SmarTours and told us not only were the tours well done but also the cost was from a third to half as much as some of the better known tour companies. We selected a 14 day tour that began in Delhi and went to Jaipur, Agra, Khajuraho, Varanasi, and ended with 3 days in Nepal.

After just over 15 hours of our non-stop flight from Chicago to Delhi we arrived around 10 in the evening at the Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi. As we reached customs, we were confronted with a long wall possessing huge sculptured, golden hands with fingers in different positions of sign language welcoming us to India. We were amazed at the modern, clean atmosphere of the terminal building, which contrasted greatly to our taxi ride of some 45 minutes through smog and dusty streets of this city of some fifteen million inhabitants and was teaming with vehicles and people even at this late hour.

On arrival at our hotel, The Surya (Crown Plaza), our taxi driver was halted at a large iron gate by guards in military uniforms. We were questioned by the guards to make sure that we had reservations at this hotel, and once we showed our SmarTours booking, we were allowed to unload our bags from the taxi and were let through the iron gate, the taxi and driver not being allowed to enter. At the hotel’s entrance we had to pass through a metal detector and have our bags X-rayed before being allowed to enter the beautiful lobby. The floors and counters were highly polished marble, and the furniture gave the appearance of a palace. Even the attendants who checked us in looked as if they fit better than we did in such surroundings. We almost had to pinch ourselves to be sure we were not hallucinating as only a few minutes before, when we were outside the walls that surrounded the hotel, we had been staring at buildings in disrepair and huge piles of trash in the street, small, tattered shops with poor lighting, and several blocks of ghetto dwellings constructed of cardboard and discarded scrap metal and plastic.
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We were up the next morning after about 6 hours sleep, took a warm shower, and went down to a huge buffet breakfast with a selection of all kinds of Western and Eastern cuisine. Having made our own travel arrangements to and from India, we went to te lobby after breakfast to introduce ourselves to the rest of the tour group and our SmarTours guide. The tour group of 28 came from various parts of the United States and Canada and turned out to be a great bunch of people. Our SmarTours guide, Arvind, whom we found, as we experienced the next two weeks, to be one of the best tour guides we had ever had the pleasure of knowing. Boarding the comfortable tour bus without any delay, we were off to sightsee around Delhi.
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Both smog and traffic of Delhi were thick as we encountered a mass of cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, horse and ox-pulled carts, bicycles, and pedestrians. All were competing for the four traffic lanes in a mish-mash of converging at intersections, where directions were sorted out with roundabouts and hundreds of horns blowing. We saw few streetlights throughout the city and u-turns were a common means of reversing direction. Progress was slow, and I had to admire the patience of our Sikh driver. The lack of government expenditure on infrastructure, which affects everyone, became increasingly apparent from the first day of our tour to the last.

Our drive through the city that morning brought us by the Red Fort, built by a Mughal Emperor around 1648. Today Delhi’s Moslem population was celebrating the Haj festival called Eid , and we passed many people leading goats down the street around the huge Jama Masjid Mosque. The goats are auctioned and then slaughtered in a ceremony for the festival. Our driver was able to find parking near the Mosque, and we disembarked to go inside. The inside of the Mosque was a huge area with the floors covered with woven rugs, and the ceiling was a large dome. The Mosque, which is the largest in India, was built between 1644 and 1658 and can hold 25,000 people. It towers over what is known as Old Delhi.
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After leaving the Jama Masjid Mosque we drove through various parts of Delhi. In New Delhi as we passed large, gated mansions dating back to the period of the British Raj and the government complex where India’s Parliament meets and the President’s house, our guide, told us about some of the key eras in India’s history, from the period of Mughal rule to the partitioning after the British Colonial Period with the country being divided into India and Pakistan.
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As we listened and viewed the passing scenery, we could not help but see the contrast between the grandeur of the past and present rulers’ buildings and the poor state of the people we passed on the street. We saw many men begging, some with an injury wrapped with a bloody cloth bandage; bike rickshaws carrying whole families; carts and bicycles heavily loaded with goods of all kinds transported by boys walking alongside; filthy kids bathing in water streaming from a public water hand pump; and dogs, so scrawny you could count their ribs, going through piles of trash along the street. But even among the squalor, we saw smiling, determined faces with beautiful features and women elegantly dressed in beautiful, multi-colored saris trimmed with gold bangles.
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Our bus let us out in front of Birla Mandir Temple, a very colorful red and cream structure, and we toured the Temple, experiencing our first up-close observation of some of the practices of Hinduism. As Arvind gave us a great deal of information about the symbols and gods we saw around the Temple area, we were able to watch Indians going through certain rituals that go back thousands of years, this being the oldest of the world’s main religions.
During the day we visited Kashmir Emporium, a factory selling hand-knotted wool and silk rugs made by families in Kashmir as their sole means of support. The special Pashmina wool rugs are made from just the soft chin hairs of the goats in the Kashmir Mountains. Each unique pattern is specific to a family, and these designs are handed down and taught from father to children for generations and are now certified motifs. This extreme northern area of India used to have great tourism, especially from the Indian people. But travel advisories about terrorism in the area since 1940’s have all but ended tourism there, greatly hurting the economy of those mountain families. Indians believe that all their problems are because of Partition. At the factory they served us wonderful cardimon tea, samozas, and goat cheese sandwiches, delicious light snacks to last us till dinner because with today’s holiday no restaurants are open. The government sponsors the bazaar here and guarantees the quality.
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Later in the day we visited Raj Gnat, which is a large park on the banks of the Yamuna River that is the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation after his assassination in 1948. A stately platform of black marble with an eternal flame stands on the spot and is a peaceful setting for honoring and remembering this man, considered the Father of India, who dedicated his life to trying to get justice for the Indian people. As we returned to our hotel through the afternoon traffic, we passed the large India Gate or War Memorial Arch, which is a memorial to some 90,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting the British, and the Bahai Lotus Temple, 1 of only 7 in the world, which is a large empty Hall of Meditation open for all faiths and of beautiful lotus flower shaped architecture.
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At our hotel we enjoyed a delicious evening buffet, selecting from an array of Indian cuisine, and another huge breakfast buffet. Our private bus journey from Delhi to the city of Jaipur in the Eastern state of Rajasthan was about 160 miles (277 km) and took all day. On the outskirts of Delhi we stopped at the Qutb Minar, which has a tower or minaret over 70 meters (210 feet) high and 15 meters (45 feet) in diameter at the base. A Muslim sultan, Qutb-ud-din, started the structure in 1193AD, and his successors completed it in 1368 AD. The beginning of this complex came immediately after the defeat of the last Hindu kingdom of Delhi. The tower was amazing to see, and some of the ruins of the mosque that had been a part of the complex showed that these Muslim conquerors used Hindu Temple sandstone blocks, defacing them by removing the human and animal forms carved in relief, to build this first mosque in India.
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We journeyed on to Jaipur during the rest of the day, arriving at our hotel about 8 P.M. The inferior roads and extreme traffic make travel overland particularly slow going, and everyone had to limit their coffee and beverage intake because of the lack of restroom facilities in most of the towns and villages we traveled through that day. As we neared Jaipur we passed a rural taxi jeep taking people home from work: a jeep suited for five people but holding about 20 with some hanging onto bundles on the roof. We saw gutters filled with trash, blocked drains causing mud and stagnant puddles all long the roadside. This created terrible health conditions, made worse by people peeing any and everywhere and one adult defecating on side of road against a town wall with his back to the road. People don’t know any other way of life and were smiling and happily visiting in groups of men or women. Most look amazingly clean in spite of squalor everywhere. Bathing is required every morning before worshiping at whatever temple or small statue of a god or goddess is available. Most people have to wash in a puddle or the ditch or under a city hand pump.

The Indian people are really pretty. Beauty seems to be very important as even work lories are decorated with hand paintings and designs. People work hard as a way of life because everyone is poor and each has to make his own survival each day. Men work in shops and factories; women in fields and also do all the home preparation and cooking etc. Nearing Jaipur, the city of kings and a business center, a traffic jam gave us a long wait. We were entertained by a hoard of rhesus monkeys on the wall beside us eating trash and begging food from vehicles. Natives of Jaipur, they have been relocated to the rural area because they become pests in town robbing homes.

Watch for Part 2 in our March 15 or April Issue, describing life in Jaipur, Agra and the Taj Mahal

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Disoriented in the darkness, I saw an outline of my husbands’ body lying next to mine. Shouting and loud explosions knocked against our window, shaking the narrow building we had been sleeping inside. In a moment I recalled the country, the city, the reason I was there, here, in India. India, extraordinary… country of extremes, from great riches to the walking dead, dramatic landscapes reaching Himalayan heights, to the dry devastation in central valleys below. We had entered Uttar Pradesh and I was in the city of contradictions, Varanasi. (www.varanasicity.com) One of the oldest cities in the world, one of India’s holiest and one of the most deceitful.

Getting out of bed, I pulled a comfy sweater over my head and peered over our balcony. The streets were celebrating the end of Diwali the Hindu festival of lights, homecoming of Rama. (www.diwalifestival.org) Firecrackers were being tossed in all directions, distant drums passed along the small alley below my room and cheers rose above all other noises. It was the drummers who first caught my attention, with their passionate beats, arms wailing against the skin of the instrument. Men were dancing between the crowds and ladies looked on from a distance as did I. Generals marched by with rifles and swords slung across their shoulders. Then I saw the camels and behind them, dead bodies resting on wooden carts.

My husband and I had arrived in Varanasi earlier that day on a train coming from the far north. Crossing the Indian border from Nepal, we had homed in on the green, white and orange banner welcoming us. As worn down westerners carrying all our worldly possessions by backpack, we were obvious candidates in need of passport control. Some locals did point us in the right direction without hesitation. Waiting on our arrival, two officials greeted us alongside the main road connecting India and Nepal. Dust had settled over the portable table and documents. We took a seat and waited. When passing through immigration I always have a slight panic, a thought that just maybe I will be refused entry, but when the officer signed my visa and threw it back at me I felt welcome enough. The next hurdle was transport.

Catching a bus heading south our goal was to get in touch with India’s broad-gauge railway. The bus was one of the nicest I had been on since touching down in Central Asia, fairly clean, padded seats, not a jingle of loose bolts, with digital entertainment of the latest Bollywood smash hit. Not long after we commented on the appealing condition, the engine fired-up and the refreshing breeze from my window ceased. Our bus pulled to the side of the road. We were about an hour into a three-hour journey to Gorakhpur. This was not the first time a bus had fallen victim to an overworked and under attended day, but when the driver began to dismantle the clutch we hailed the next passing bus.
Backstreets of Varanasi
Our efforts most likely got us to the grubby city of Gorakhpur hours earlier then fate had intended and from there we got on the next train to Varanasi. “From which country, madam?” Our rickshaw driver reached to the back to greet me. I pretended not to hear the question, while my husband sat quiet next to me. I gave him a welcoming smile towards the rearview mirror, “We just came from Nepal,” I shouted through the thick air. The engine revved, there was no point now in continuing the conversation, I sat back just in time to see the drivers face smile at me. Red beetle nut juice oozed between his long narrow teeth and he clicked the stereo on.

As deafening as the music was in my ear, I was literally sitting atop the speaker, the sound quieted my mind and I watched the city of Varanasi unfold before my eyes. The scattering of shops spilling out into the street, block upon block, metallic containers, rainbows of bangles shimmering in the sun, greased motor parts, jewelers dressed in white cupping hot tea, young women hovering around fruit stalls and cows grazing through the garbage. The low rays of the sun tangled in the mess of dust particles as we veered into a small alley, avoiding collision with an ox cart. Our driver then dropped us in old town Varanasi.

Walking alongside the Ganges River, sweat began to build on my forehead, passing the burning Ghats, funeral after funeral; this was after all, where people come to die. Ash from the burning wood and bodies’ fell like snow, reminding me that death is as ordinary as life. Depending on their cast, bodies are burned on the sacred ground or raised platform after a ceremonial cleansing with the river water. It is believed that if you pass in Varanasi the vicious life cycle will come to an end, and eternal peace is yours.

With each cautious step as to avoid the cow dung, dog crap or human waste, we were approached by someone. People asked if we needed a boat ride, a tour, a guesthouse. Can we donate to this funeral or that funeral? Do we want this or that? Anything! One child after another, “what country? Where are you going? Where did you come from?” Men stumbling for words, holding chrome pots for donations, fakes I am sure they were, touts, commission hungry, every one of them hoping to drain a little something, appearing from dark alleys and cracks in the walls. We ignored them for the most part, but with the increasing smell of urine, falling ash and buzzing flies there left little calm in me. Turning down an alleyway, in a crazed state, I jumped towards a doorway to the right just after seeing a guesthouse sign.
Backstreets of Varanasi
It was a clean quiet place, an oasis of calm. The owner ushered us upstairs on arrival to a spacious room and we checked in for a two-night stay at Sankatha Guesthouse. At the rooftop café human existence was scarce; the tables were of course exposed to the outdoor elements, with a layer of fine grey ash. But I was too tired to complain and scanned the menu. Meanwhile the owner sat down with us and told us a story of recent guests, their personal trials and tribulations and their quest for silk. He explained how to tell the difference between polyester and silk, then went on to explain if we were interested, he could escort us to a silk shop in the morning. With pleasure he spoke of the favor he would doing us. Of course, not seeking a commission as other hotels are doing.
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I of course declined and retreated to my room, showered and collapsed in a heap on the bed. It was hours later that I was shaken from my sleep and crept to the balcony to witness the festival of lights.
Sword dancers paraded down the narrow passages in masked costumes, drifting between the streets, and ghostly floats carried small bodies of children neatly wrapped in silken cloth from head to toe. Sitting lifeless atop wooden poles, rocking with the movement, lit by lanterns, their shadows would go racing down the narrow alleys towards the burning ghats. Families on rooftops huddled together to watch the performances in the street, and bodies continued to pass wrapped in silk, peacefully laid upon wooden frames. Members of each funeral procession passed, some quiet and some grief stricken wailed in remembrance of their loved ones. I had never felt so immersed in death and it was then that I remembered the holiday being celebrated on the same day back home, it was Halloween.

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When thinking of adventure traveling, I can think of no more adventurous place than India.
In December I went back to India after almost 14 years, and took my new husband of 5 months and 9 ½ year-old son along. To say there were some changes is an understatement. The trip began with mixed feelings, ok, with much disappointment, even as we tried to leave our home city of Denver. Our yogurts were confiscated and my 9-year-old son had to endure no entertainment for about five hours. He had looked forward to his electronic favorites.

In New York, we struggled to make our flight at JFK after being misdirected by a Delta stewardess. We were at the opposite end of the airport, having gotten there through rain, with no sidewalk, with my son and husband struggling along, barely missing cars in the heavy traffic. The flight was about to leave in 15 minutes; there was no way we would make it to the other side in time for departure. We looked at each other, and started running, breaking out in sweat. Panting, we arrived to see a herd of people gathered at the check-in line, and waited behind passengers arguing with Air India attendants. We explained our plight, and found out that the flight had been delayed, but we would need to hurry to make it. Running again, we made it to the gate with a disorderly herd in what was to be a boarding line. Once there, we learned that our seats were nowhere near one another. We tried to trade with passengers in line but were advised to try to do so aboard the plane. Once seated, we were successful in exchanging with two kind souls, so we ended up together for the leg to London, but no such luck from the London-Delhi leg. Once on board Air India, we were chagrined to discover that there was no working entertainment – about seven hours until we reached London. We tried to settle in.

In London, we were sequestered with not enough room for all to sit, so we sat or laid on the floor, waiting for our flight. This time, it seems we got a different Air India plane, and most passengers seemed to have working entertainment, except me. Since we were stuck with seats in different parts of the plane, I was able at least to negotiate with a customer sitting next to my son and sleeping to trade with me part of the time. My son was excited to be able to watch TV and cartoons much of the flight, having been deprived thus far. This, unfortunately, meant that once we arrived in Delhi, he was exhausted. The mob scene appeared once we deplaned, and different herds went to different areas of the room at Delhi airport, which ended up in one big crowd to clear customs and get baggage. There were no windows and we were packed into the space like cattle to slaughter. I propped my son to sit against the wall as we waited. He was promptly asleep.

Once making it through customs, we managed to locate where our bags should have arrived, only to discover after searching for at least an hour and seeing fewer and fewer bags appear on the conveyor, that none of our three bags had made it! After another hour of trying to determine the process of reporting our loss, we were ready to leave the baggage area and possibly go out into real Delhi. Our flight was due at 10p.m. and it was now about 5a.m. We were to be picked up by a staff member from the hotel we had booked, and we were concerned he would not still be there. We were exhausted and frustrated, and we hadn’t even left the airport yet. Once we exited with our carry-on luggage, we ended up seeing our misspelled name on one of the signs held by many weary-eyed drivers. I then began my three-week Hindi-speaking adventure. I tried to explain to the driver what had transpired. He said he was just about to leave and had missed his dinner.

Our first step out into the balmy Delhi night on December 15 was alarming and exciting at once. I was finally here! And then I tried to make out what I was seeing around me – old, wrecked cars, people sleeping in various corners. It seemed to be a movie set from long ago. What a perfect interpretation of a by-gone era! Then I had to remind myself that it was not a set, but the country I was born into; and I was leaving the airport I had last seen in 1994. I looked at the faces of my husband and son, trying to determine their thoughts thus far about the country I was from. It was their very first impression. I thought they must be horrified. It was a surreal scene, stepping out into this strange, foreign land.
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There did not seem to be a defined parking lot, yet the driver seemed to find an Ambassador car that we piled into, no seatbelts in the back, which we would expect the remainder of the trip. We were off, whizzing around the snake-like streets of Delhi. There did not seem to be many street signs, after the “Welcome to Delhi” sign sponsored by Samsung, in equally big letters. Light signals were not used, favoring honking instead. It seemed numerous times vehicles were approaching us, ready for a head-on collision, and the driver calmly backed up or swerved around. Amazingly, after going through a questionable, littered neighborhood, we arrived at our “hotel.”
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All I could make out was the litter around and a general sense of disorientation and chaos. I thought the hotel manager was snippy, and when my husband mentioned he wanted to compare rooms, the manager announced in Hindi, “and now they want to compare rooms!” We were shown to our room, and I scolded my husband about wanting to compare rooms at this time of night. I then forgot where I placed my bag containing our passports, alarming the staff again. I went outside to see if the car that brought us was still there. Instead, I stood there, frozen, looking around in horror. I could not believe I was here and had brought my family here. What was I thinking?! Maybe some of my disappointment and concern for bringing my family was due to being tired after our long trip and complications. I went back up to my room, where I discovered the bag placed on a table. My short-term memory was shot. Fortunately, I had somehow decided to pack pajamas in my carry-on, which came in handy as we settled into the room for long-awaited sleep, lying down, rather than trying to manage it sitting up, as we had done for two days on a plane.

My husband and I got up a few hours later, had delicious breakfast with some foreigners, mostly from Europe, and then slept until late afternoon. We got up again, saying “good morning” to the manager as we passed, who shouted “good afternoon!” We managed to take our very first auto rickshaw to Connaught Place, where we went to a restaurant I had gone to before, Nirula’s, and ordered pizza (of all things,) which, of course, didn’t compare to what we could have at home. We later realized Delhi had “Pizza Hut,” which would have been a better choice for pizza. We stumbled around the area after eating, starting one of our chores of trying to convert our cell phones to use in India. We came across a tour operator that we ended up employing, after too much time and expenditure.

Within a couple of days of staying in Delhi, longer than planned due to our luggage being mishandled, we were able to pick up two of three bags. This was after very poor customer service, amazingly maddening processes, being ignored, yelling, crying, and even paying storage fees. My son being in tears was the worst part. The two bags were, of course, not the most important of the three we packed; they were the soft bags which I had expected to get torn into, something that had occurred on previous trips. Therefore, I had placed the most valued items in our third, hard case suitcase, which we would see over a month after returning from our trip. We were finally able to leave Delhi and begin our trip. Hopefully, the rest would not be as frustrating.

We were happy with our comfortable Toyota SUV provided by the tour operator and having a driver taking us on our adventure. It was great to slowly leave Delhi, with its stop-and-go traffic, pollution, and mayhem. There had to be some stops along the way to give my son nausea medicine. Finally, we were relieved to see pastoral land and eventually the fields of Rajasthan, where I am from. We occasionally stopped to photograph landscapes, villagers, and local market life. This is what we had come to India to see! The stress of the trip started to be replaced with awe and joy. My son tried to do some homework while the drive continued and we enjoyed listening to our MP3s.
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After stopping at a very elegant rest stop with attendants and souvenirs, we reached our first destination of Agra to show my family the Taj Mahal. Although I had seen the Taj several times before, it was my first time seeing this “old friend” at sunrise. From Agra, we traveled to a bird park in Bharatpur, where we saw some rare birds, owls, monkeys, and deer. We were told the birds were few due to a water shortage for the past several years. From Bharatpur, we went on an ambitious journey of seeing my state of Rajasthan in a short time that included my village of Khairthal in the town of Alwar, Jaipur, followed by Udaipur, where the lake palace featured in Octopussy is located.

I was skeptical of locating my former village, as I only knew that it was in the town of Alwar and not much else. I was even more skeptical of finding the house I had lived in until the age of 7, before moving to the U.S. The driver was, perhaps, more skeptical than I that this task would be accomplished. After asking numerous people and driving for what seemed like eternity, we were there. I rolled down my car window to ask gathering folks whether they were aware of someone with my last name having lived there.

Almost immediately, individuals in the gathering commented on having the same name and were commenting on my mom’s name – that I was her daughter. We were swiftly directed to the homes of relatives, where we were offered chai and snacks while other relatives gathered. Many photos were taken and we were finally shown my former house, where the current tenants allowed us to view the interior. The house had now been divided into two homes. I was able to show my husband and son the right half of the home where I had many memories, the best of which included sleeping on the roof. I tried to recall where in the neighborhood I had played and tried to communicate as much as I could with relatives in Hindi while they spoke my former dialect, “Kuchi,” which I still understood. It was a short visit, not more than half hour, and we had to leave to make it to our hotel commitment in Jaipur, where we arrived at 11p.m.

After two days in Jaipur, where we toured and shopped for my importing business, we took off for a day-long, difficult drive to Udaipur. We stayed only one night before we had to fly early the next morning to Kerela. It was a drive that should have been replaced by a flight, so we could have had more time to tour. Once we arrived in Cochin, Kerela, we had to take a one-hour car ride to Fort Cochin, a quaint town where we spent a mellow Christmas in 70 degree weather while it was freezing back home in Denver, CO. It was at a questionable restaurant in Fort Cochin that I became impatient with our food restrictions and decided to have some chutney at room temperature. My risk, of course, did not pay off, and I promptly ended up with intestinal issues. Our next stop was Allepey, Kerela, where despite killer mosquitoes, we enjoyed a magical four hour boat ride. We were able to view village life and take many photographs. I almost did not venture out on the boat ride for fear of my stomach upset. Seeing the views and villagers, I was very grateful that my intestines cooperated.
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Unfortunately, after a bad restroom experience en route to our next and major destination of Varkala Beach in Kerela, I was not such a fan of my country. The views and beach time at the care-free, hippy town of Varkala soon brought back my pride in the country again. I met a Turkish future pen pal while getting beautiful black henna patterns on my hands and feet. I loved watching sunset over the Indian Ocean. The henna was part of the preparation for a simple Hindu ceremony on the 31st of December . My husband and I were able to squeeze in at a temple in Varkala before heading south to theTrivandrum Airport the next morning. We flew to Bangalore, the new Silicon Valley, for an overnight stay before heading back to Delhi in the North. The next day we headed back to the U.S. We were happy to have seats together on the flight back . After missing a flight in Chicago, we finally made it back to our regular life in the states in January. It took at least a week to adjust physically and somewhat longer mentally. We appreciated the simple non-chaotic part of daily life and the joy of smooth roads.

Looking back, I can see some differences in the country from my trip in 1994. There were no cell phones then. During this trip, it seemed everyone, including the drivers, had them. I half-expected the beggars to pull them out after a Bollywood tune went off. There was more road work going on, which was a relief. There were American restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, and others which I had not seen in 1994. The crowds at Delhi airport were beyond imaginable and surely greater than my previous trip. I have heard that it will probably get worse before it gets better, as India tries to catch up with its growth.

Overall, I felt I had accomplished my objectives of reconnecting with my native country and introducing it and its culture to my husband and son. I hope it was an experience we can build on in the future. I hope that the trip will prevent potential attitude issues in my son, having seen boys his age begging and working. I hope he will be more grateful for all that he has and will have a broader perspective on life. I was very grateful that he did not get sick and complained very minimally. Despite the frustrations experienced, we became closer as a result of our adventures and are ready for the next trip, a focus on the Himalayan area in the North, which we have reserved for a summer in the next couple of years.