Enchanting India

Another blast from the past...my trip to India in January/February 2007.


Saturday January 20th - My adventure began at Heathrow Airport. I had flown over to England on the 8th of January - spent a fantastic weekend in Venice (how could I refuse with an airfare of a pound each way?) & the rest of the time in London. My real excitement began when I checked in and was told my e-ticket was no good - I needed an old fashioned ticket due to the fact I had booked through a travel agent. I gave the ticket agent my envelope and she walked away with it and brought it back and said quite coldly “This is no good - you will have to buy another ticket”. Well needless to say I was in a panic and almost in tears as no way could I afford to buy another ticket. She told me to go over to the customer service desk and as I was standing in line I saw a voucher under my eticket that looked like it should work. I verified with customer service and yes that was it. I didn’t even know I had it and it was tucked into the back of the envelope my travel agent had given me - I can’t remember my travel agent telling me about it but then she did drop it off at my apartment at 9 a.m. before I had my morning coffee (the perks of having your travel agent living in the same building) so who knows! It is just luck I decided to take the whole envelope with me. I still break out in cold sweats thinking about it! Anyway the second agent who checked me in was so sweet and gave me a better feeling about Virgin Atlantic. She packed up my small bag that I thought I could carry on - Heathrow airport now only allows one carry on even though the airline allowd two. That feeling intensified when I got on the flight and saw that everyone had their own TV screen with loads of movies & features to watch. I happily sat and watched “The Queen”, “The Da Vinci Code” and part of “The Devil Wears Prada” until my screen almost disappeared on me. Not to worry - between the movies and the delicious curry meal and breakfast the 9 hours went quickly.

Sunday January 21st - Arrived into Delhi International airport and the Imaginative Traveler rep was there to meet me. We got into a taxi and then half way there the rep got out and said he had to go back to the airport to meet more clients - it was the middle of nowhere. That was strange and I was a bit nervous but it all turned out find in the end - another girl on the tour had the same thing happen to her only hers was around midnight - much more scary!!! I decided it was a hairy ride but not much worse than the previous year in Peru. (I was still half asleep!) I arrived at the Hotel Florence and checked in. I had missed most of the orientation but was able to freshen up before we went out on an afternoon tour of Delhi. Our group was small - just seven of us. Michael (with an infectious laugh) from Birmingham, Anne Marie from Holland, Judy & Shanna - a mother/daughter team from Boise, Idaho and Susan and Melody, another mother/daughter team from Australia. The latter proved to be the bane of all our lives! Our guide was Karun - an Indian fellow about 30 - to be known in this report as “Mr. Hotty”. (he was GORGEOUS) The tour was interesting - we visited the huge Birla Hindu temple, a Sikh temple which was fantastic with a beautiful man made lake in the middle - it is one of the bigger ones in India. There were serving free water but needless to say we declined - they do serve food as well. You never see Sikhs begging - they take care of their own. (Sikhs wear turbans) We weren’t able to get close to India Gate due to high security for Independence Day in a couple of days. We went to see where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. After that everyone was going out for dinner but I decided to have a quiet meal at the hotel and go to bed as I was absolutely exhausted.

Monday January 22nd - After a quick breakfast we hit the road just before 8 a.m. as it was a long drive. I was more wide awake so was able to absorb more around me - saw a few “interesting” sights on the way out of Delhi. Open urinals on a city bridge - how quaint!! Pooping on the sidewalk - well why not! I am not laughing about it but in India you just cannot let it get to you or you would be crying all the time. You learn to walk through hoardes of beggars looking straight ahead otherwise you would never get anywhere. It sounds heartless and afterwards you wonder how you did it but it's just something you have to do. A lot of beggars have missing limbs and it is likely from gangs who do this and use them to make money. We were told not to give to beggars but to donate to a local charity if we truly wished to help them. Anyway once we got into the country it was exciting to see our first camel but not nice to see the first stray dogs. Being the dog lover I am I had to try and feed everyone I saw - most females had nursing puppies and they were too old to be nursing but their mothers‘s milk was all they had. It was heartbreaking to see dogs with puppies hanging on to their teats in the middle of the street with vehicles swerving around them and honking . What struck me the most was that the dogs were all polite and despite being starving waited their turn for the food and didn‘t steal from the others. Judy, Shanna & I sat at the back of the van and kept putting our hands over our eyes when we saw stray dogs nearly get hit. We didn’t see any get hit but we did see dead dogs in the ditches. The traffic in India is unbelievable - total chaos with horns going non-stop. It is considered “polite” to honk and trucks have “horn please” on the back so even in the country with no one else on the road (rare occurrence) you still blare that horn! We arrived into Mandawa in Rajasthan in the late afternoon and stayed at a havali - an old merchants house that has been turned into a hotel. These houses are decorated with beautiful frescoes - Mandawa was full of them. It was on the old silk route and merchants would vie with each other to see who could have the most beautiful home. Dinner that evening was a fantastic buffet (the highlight for all of us was the carrot pudding) eaten on the roof top with live music and fireworks. The desert is cold at night so all of us had a hot water bottle as a companion that night!

Tuesday January 23 - After breakfast we went for a walking tour of Mandawa and saw many more buildings with frescoes on - the ones done with natural minerals have endured for a couple of hundred years while the synthetic colours have cracked and faded. A short five minute bus ride and we were at our desert resort which was amazing. We all had our own luxury mud huts! I decided I could happily live there - I would adopt a couple of stray dogs from Mandawa and be quite happy. J The interiors were absolutely beautiful. After lunch (disappointing spring rolls) Ann Marie and I went for a walk around the grounds. Later that afternoon we went for our camel ride to a nearby village for masala chai (tea) and then back. I sat behind Ann Marie on the way there and then at the front on the way back - when the camel got up and down it was quite exciting! However it was something else I can cross off my list as I’ve been wanting to ride a camel for years! Dinner that evening was another fantastic buffet under a marque with live music, a puppet show and singing. (if you can call it that)

Wednesday January 24th - After a wonderful buffet breakfast (in case you hadn’t guessed I didn’t lose any weight in India!) we headed off to the pink city of Jaipur. Called pink as many of it’s buildings are pink. Our hotel Arya Niwas was basic but had a lovely garden and a great restaurant. That morning we relaxed in the garden and in the afternoon we went on an excursion to the Amber fort which was huge and very interesting with a beautiful view On the way back we stopped to see the Lake Palace which was surrounded by earth and not much water as there has been a drought. That evening we went out to a nice restaurant by motorized rickshaw - called a tuk tuk. When we weren’t in the van as a group we did all our traveling by either bicycle rickshaw or motorized tuk tuk. Quite exciting at times! No road rules seem to apply in India and traffic lights are few and far between. My tummy was burning a bit - not sick - I was never sick the whole time - but I decided to give it a break and had macaroni and cheese of all things (with the inevitable butter naan - I loved that stuff!!!) but it did the trick and I was back to speed the next morning. Just adjusting to the Indian spices.

Thursday January 25th - After a light breakfast we toured the world’s oldest observatory & then walked over to the City Palace. Not one of the more memorable ones - the most exciting thing was seeing monkeys close up for the first time on the trip. (like camels, seeing monkeys would become a ho hum thing) We stopped at a carpet factory - I never realized how long it takes to make an East Indian carpet. (6 months) They were absolutely beautiful but not in my budget unfortunately - I will continue to use my parents’ that is falling apart! Back to our hotel through the chaotic Jaipur traffic. Cows are all over the street and while no one will deliberately hurt a cow (and the cows know it - they do have an attitude) once they quit giving milk they are mostly left to their own devices. It is heartbreaking to see huge piles of garbage with cows, goats & dogs foraging around. Mr. Hotty said he knew someone who opened up their dead cow and found around 85 kg. of plastic. If they cannot find food they eat what they can. Any leftovers I had from meals I always took them in a ‘doggie bag’ and put them out on the side of the road or down a quiet alley as I knew some hungry mouth would find them. That was one of the painful things about India for me besides the terrible poverty - the cruelty towards animals - well maybe just the non caring attitude but when you are struggling to find enough to eat yourself you aren’t going to worry about animals. Yet as with everything in India there were contradictions - stray dogs that were taken care of by local tuk tuk drivers & businessmen - a couple of dogs I tried to feed toast to turned up their noses and walked away. I noticed the toast was gone later though. After a nice lunch with “the gang” - meaning the five of us (Judy referred to us as the “A team“) - Melody and her mother were off spending money which was the soundtrack for their trip - let’s spend a fortune on jewelry that we can show off but let’s argue with the local waiters & salesmen over every last rupee & make a fuss over every meal that might be a bit too spicy - duh..you’re in India! Ann Marie, Michael and I took a tuk tuk to the shopping area - and hoped we did not need to cross the road. Utter chaos! Michael took off to a local coffee shop to observe the locals while Ann Marie and I went shopping. We came upon a lovely jewelry store and both spent a bit there - myself on pretty silver with semi precious stone bracelets as gifts including one for myself. (the owner was upset I wasn’t getting anything for myself so I gave in….it was tough..ha ha) Back to the hotel on the rickshaw ride from hell in rush hour traffic (well it seems to be all rush hour there) - I took video as it was wild - we didn’t think we’d ever get back to the hotel especially as the driver kept asking other drivers for instructions. We arrived back in time for a quick change and wash up then out to dinner to a nice place called “Indiana” which featured musicians & dancers.

Friday January 26th - Happy Republic Day India!! After a breakfast of a masala omelette & fresh fruit we headed off for Ranthambore Park which is a good place to see Tigers. On the way we stopped at a rest stop and there was mama dog with her four babies (once again much too old to be nursing) and dad was lurking too. So of course Judy and I had to buy food and feed them! We arrived at our resort just before lunch - after a buffet lunch we headed off with another group on an open air safari bus. The park was beautiful - lots of hills and trees. No tigers though. The closest we got was seeing paw prints. We did see all kinds of deer, monkeys, a couple of wild boars and a few jackals. I hadn’t expected it so wasn’t disappointed - it is a beautiful area of India. After a delicious buffet for dinner I had a ‘dessert’ of English toffee in my room and out came what I thought was a filling. (actually some of the tooth came out too) I was distraught as you can imagine - who wants to go to a dentist in India. But it turned out fine - no problems whatsoever and I got it fixed on my return to Canada.

Saturday January 27th - Early in the morning we left for the park once again and walked up to the 900 year old fort. Lots of stairs but they were easy to navigate and it was well worth it. What a view!!! The fort is beautiful but badly in need of repair - sadly the Indian government does not have the money to fix it. From the fort we could see the huge lake and our guide told us any dark bits in the water were crocodiles. Once again our guide was hard to understand but Mr. Hotty came to the rescue. Back to the hotel for breky and then we set off for Karauli (a non-tourist town) which took about three and a half hours. We checked into the Maharajah’s palace - yep that’s right. The money that the company pays the Maharajah goes towards renovations on his beautiful city palace which we would see the next day. We stayed at his summer palace on the outskirts of the city. Mr. Hotty handed out our keys and when I went to mine I nearly fell over - it was HUGE! The bathroom was as big as my living room let alone the rest of the place. Mr. Hotty told me he had given me the largest room and not to tell anyone. Of course I had to tell Judy, Shanna & Ann Marie and they all had to come and take a look. Anyway Mr. Hotty told me he wanted me to meet someone so I grabbed my camera and went with him - WELL….here was a mom dog (boxer) owned by the Maharajah named Simone with her darling 7 black puppies. Judy was holding one and of course I had to grab one and we had a real doggie fix. We are both dog people and it was so hard not to touch the strays but we knew we couldn’t for our own health & safety. Dad was supposedly the Maharajah’s yellow lab named Simon but from the look of the pups I’d say Simone isn’t telling him everything!! Judy, Anne Marie and I went for a walk to the local market and were enjoying not being harassed for money until a little urchin asked for ten rupees but we ignored him. (and cursed the tourist who had given him money) Other than that one kid no one else asked us for money. A refreshing change! The children followed us everywhere and we got used to our “entourage”. Everyone stared at us though as they don’t get many tourists here - in fact no tourist hotels which is why we were staying at the palace. It was fantastic to be able to interact with people and know they weren’t wanting anything from you. Back at the palace we had a delicious dinner including fresh veggies (red carrots!) from the palace gardens. We sat and talked in the delightful courtyard after dinner and then I went and slept in my palatial suite. Although the bed was still as hard as the rest of the hotel beds in India!!!

Sunday January 28th - After our usual masala omelette (which I loved) we went on a walking tour of Karauli and visited the city palace which was exquisite. Much nicer than some of the more famous palaces we had visited up until that point. We also were able to attend a Hindu ceremony in a local temple. We had our usual entourage of shouting “hello!” children. On the way back we stopped at a bangle shop (Karauli is famous for it’s beautiful handmade bangles) and we all had to have ours enlarged as our hands weren’t as dainty as the Indian women’s. We nearly caused a riot with both adults and children congregating around watching us. I was able to get some fantastic photos of the children on my digital camera - they loved seeing the pictures and would struggle to be the one right in front of the camera! Karauli was definitely the highlight of the trip to me - seeing what a typical Indian town was like, our lovely palace home, unlimited doggie cuddles!!! After a lunch of soup, sandwiches & pakoras we had a rest and then the camel carts came to pick us up. We sat on blankets on the flat cart and it was great - we got to see the homes just outside of town and the children yelled “hello” and “ta ta” to us. Everyone was so friendly waving at us. We stopped at a lovely picnic site by a lake then went back via the same route with just as many “hellos” as before.

Monday January 29th - Time to leave Karauli . How sad. The route was scenic and I was able to get some shots from the van - images that stay in my mind are: children and adults bathing at the local water pump,(despite the poverty everyone seemed so clean and the men’s shirts were ironed and spotless) homes made of dung, people waving, beautiful smiles & bright saris. After another huge buffet lunch we arrived at Keoladeo Ghana bird sanctuary. We traveled by electric bus and stopped at various places - the very first thing we saw was a rock python. I am deathly afraid of snakes so can’t believe I watched it with fascination as it slithered back into it’s hole. I think because I knew we were going to see it and I was prepared - if we had come across it unexpectedly well I would probably have died of heart failure on the spot. We saw kingfishers and other birds - I am not good at birds but they were pretty!! After that it was off to Fathpur Sikri which is an ancient complex made of sand stone. This was created by a Maharajah who had three wives - one Muslim, one Christian & one Hindu - they each had their own temple & palace. On to Agra - or back to “tourist land” and chaotic traffic & beggers. The normal hotel was being renovated so we were put up in a beautiful business hotel. Another delicious buffet dinner and off to bed.

Tuesday January 30th - Woke up early to get to the Taj Mahal by 6:30 a.m. Words cannot describe the Taj - it is much better than in pictures and the detail is amazing. Went inside which was fantastic as well - way below the ground are the tombs of Shahjahan & Mumtaz Mahal. Shahjahan built the Taj in Mumtaz’s memory when she died after the birth of their 14th child. The original plan was for her tomb to be the in the white Taj and he would be entombed in a black twin version of the Taj but he was imprisoned by his son in the Red Fort (which we visited that afternoon) and spent the rest of his life gazing across the river at the Taj Mahal. I was so lucky to see such a beautiful tribute to love and seeing it was one of the highlights of my life. Back to the hotel for a well earned buffet breakfast. Judy’s daughter Taylor had arrived from Bangalore (where she was doing research) with a private driver to see the Taj Mahal with her mom and sister - they kindly invited me to come along in their private car so I spent the afternoon with them. We went to the Red Fort then on to Ikamd-Ud-Dailah which is known as the Baby Taj. It was very pretty and similar to the Taj but smaller - it was the building the Tah Mahal was modeled after. We got caught in horrible traffic getting to the market only to find everything closed but we did have a wonderful lunch at a place called Zorba the Buddha which had been recommended by our tour company. We then went back to the hotel, had a quick dinner in a nearby restaurant then went to the local train station to get the train to Varanassi. The train station had resident dogs & monkeys - not your typical station!!! Judy and I once again bought food for the dogs and I was told off by a tourist that I was offending the locals as “people are starving in this country and you are feeding dogs”. I was quite taken aback but after a quick pep talk with Judy I went back and deliberately fed the dog right in front of him!!! Monkeys were all over the tracks and even dogs would jump down onto the tracks but would jump up again - it made me so nervous!! I didn’t want to see a dog hit by one of the trains that came roaring in. The overnight trip was okay - I am not a fan of trains and it was definitely the low point of the trip for me. I was relieved when we arrived

Wednesday January 31st - It was absolute chaos at the train station but we managed to get to our bus which dropped us at our hotel. Had brunch then we headed out to Sarnath which is where Buddha gave his first sermon. Visited a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple then the site where the first sermon was held. There was a musuem on site with artifacts which was very interesting. Some Chinese monks (I had asked one where they were from) went through security and had to give up cell phones, digital cameras and they were all giggling like crazy. One lone monk had to sit outside guarding the ‘stash’. It was hilarious as you don’t think of monks as being that technologically advanced and their cheerful giggles made me laugh too. Back to the hotel for dinner.

Thursday February 1st - We were up early and out by 6 a.m. to have our early morning boat ride on the Ganges. Amazing!!! People come to the Ganges to purify themselves as it is a holy river. We Westerners can go on about how dirty the river is and how can they stand it but it was very humbling to see them bathing themselves and see the joy they felt at being there. From a distance we saw a cremation as well - it is said you will go right to Nirvana if you die in Varanassi and your ashes go into the Ganges. We got off the boat and walked to the Gold Temple - it is in the area with a very well protected mosque - there have been bombs in the past so we had to go through security. Once again a clash between Muslims & Hindus. We could not go into the temple as you have to be Hindu to go into that particular one. Walked through very narrow lanes filled with people, cows & motorbikes back to our bus. After breakfast four of us took rickshaws back to the Ghats and walked along several of them - fascinating. . Especially seeing the Sadhus - Hindu holymen who travel from one religious site to another. They coat their faces with ash and look prehistoric. We saw the beginnings of a cremation - fire wood is very expensive in India so you have to be quite wealthy to be cremated. Sometimes there is not enough firewood to burn the entire body before it is released into the water - bodies bobbing around are not an uncommon sight but we were lucky that we did not see any on our boat trip earlier that morning. Back via rickshaw to the hotel where I had a quiet evening in resting.

Friday February 2 - After breakfast we took off in a tuk tuk to do some shopping. We wandered around but it was so chaotic that we just gave up - we never did find any tourist type shops. We did see the local market which was interesting but not what we wanted at this point. I think we were all feeling a bit overwhelmed by Varanassi at this point - everything is so busy & noisy that it is very exhausting to even walk along the street. We took a tuk tuk out to the local university which was lovely - all green and quiet - we couldn’t get over that we were in the same city!! . We had dinner at the hotel then took a bus to the station for our return to Delhi. Poor Ann Marie was very sick - she had eaten something dodgy the night before. Luckily it was the end of our trip so she didn’t miss much but having been ill like that in London I could totally sympathize with her.

Saturday February 3 - The train trip was better than the last one but it was still a relief to reach Delhi. After breakfast the five of us got into a tuk tuk to go to Connaught Place - the main shopping area. The driver gave us a great deal - we found out why soon. We got out at what we thought was Connaught Place only to find he had taken us to a tourist shop where he got a kick back. So we got into another tuk tuk and when Michael went to sit in the front seat with the driver - something he’d been doing all along - the driver said he would charge us another 20 Rupees. Definitely back in the big city!!! In typical Manchester fashion Michael told the driver “You’re in dreamland Mate” and crammed into the back seat with us. Finally we got to Connaught Place - Judy & Shanna hit the shops and after a foray into a bookshop where we both bought Indian cookbooks Michael and I went to a yuppie coffee shop where we observed how the rich young people in Delhi live. It was quite an interesting contrast after the poverty we had witnessed over the past two weeks. We then took the subway (very clean) and both burst out laughing when we were informed by a taped recording to “mind the gap”. We got lost getting out of the subway station but asking people (who were very helpful) helped and we were soon back at the Hotel Florence. Ann Marie was feeling better so she was able to join the group for our last meal together. We took the subway and Melody and Susan joined us there. (pity!) the meal was good - my final Indian meal - boo hoo. I had a potato & cheese dish and a vegetable curry. I absolutely loved the Indian food and miss it terribly - it just doesn‘t taste the same here. Melody & Susan left early - yay - so the rest of us were able to sit and visit for a bit. Back to the hotel & time to say goodbye.

Sunday February 4 - Up early and after breakfast I headed down to the lobby and the car to take me to the airport was early. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the others (who were coming down just before 8:30) which upset me - the five of us got along so well and it was sad to realize I will probably never see them again. Mr. Hotty had suggested we leave for the airport early but I got there way too early and my Virgin Atlantic flight hadn’t even opened yet. I spent the rest of my rupees on tea and ceramic elephant coasters. (which seem to have disappeared) Then it was time to say goodbye to India and board my Virgin Atlantic flight back to London.

What can I say about India. Amazing, enchanting, disturbing, eye opening, humbling, life changing. And I can’t wait to go back!!!