India: Unpredictable, unexplicable and unforgettable

by Betsy Herbert

Camel waiting for a traffic light to change in Jaipur, India.

Camel waiting for a traffic light to change in Jaipur, India.

When I first arrived in India after ten grueling days in Madagascar, I made a beeline for Goa, an old Portuguese port on India’s southwest coast known for its beach resorts. I was in serious need of R & R.

When I arrived in Goa I was completely exhausted so I was deliriously happy to see a sari-clad Indian woman waiting at the gate holding a placard with my name on it. . . my ride to the hotel!

For the next week I planned to loll about at the Coconut Creek Resort, just a few minutes from the Goa airport, on the beach in the village of Bogmalo, amidst tropical forests.

Bogmalo Beach, Goa, India

Bogmalo Beach, Goa, India

Just hours after I checked in, I came down with a severe case of traveler’s belly and I was laid up for two days in my room, taking Immodium and steady doses of electrolytes. The hotel staff was very helpful, sending their driver to the local pharmacy to pick up tablets for me and checking in on me every once in awhile.

I rebounded in a couple of days and decided to do some sightseeing and shopping. I hired a car and driver for an afternoon from the hotel for $30. The driver spoke pretty good English. He took me to a place called the Bombay Bazaar for shopping and then to the Harvale Waterfall, a hangout for Indian tourists and locals.

My driver views Harvale Waterfall near the resort town of Bogmalo, Goa, India

My driver views Harvale Waterfall near the resort town of Bogmalo, Goa, India

The rest of my time in Goa I spent reading, writing, and walking on the beach. Except for the occasional deafening roar of military jets flying overhead (there is an airbase in town), the hotel was fairly quiet. The hotel operated a small cafe on the beach where I had most of my meals. It was cheap, the food was good, and it was very popular with both locals and tourists.

There I met another solo traveler named Magnus who was from Sweden. Magnus is an executive who was working in Goa for a few weeks. His company, like many European IT companies,  had an Indian branch. He had taken a week off for R & R and we had dinner together a couple of evenings. He liked interacting with the locals and one afternoon, he helped the local fishermen pull in their nets. Later, as we walked on the beach, he negotiated with some hawkers to buy a drum. Magnus plays the drums well, so he and several of the hawkers all jammed for a while on the beach.

One of the hawkers tried to force me to buy a drum as well, and no matter what I said, he wouldn't leave me alone. I walked away and the hawker followed, continuing to harass me. Magnus intervened and offered him a few hundred rupees just to go away, which finally worked. This was my introduction to dealing with Indian hawkers. Do not ever engage with them because it's a losing proposition!

Negotiating with local hawkers to buy a drum at Bogmalo Beach, Goa, India.

Negotiating with local hawkers to buy a drum at Bogmalo Beach, Goa, India.

A couple of days later, I departed Goa for Mumbai and a day later to Kolkata, where I would join an organized tour to Bhutan. I was feeling well rested and ready for almost two months of fast-paced tours.

When I arrived at the Kolkata airport, I was greeted by a uniformed driver with a big limo from the Oberoi Hotel, where I was to meet up with my Bhutan tour group. The driver immediately launched into a tirade, telling me how the big hotels grossly underpay their drivers.  I assumed he was looking for a tip, but I also think he was right.

The Oberoi is one of the most luxurious hotels I have ever stayed in. It was 5-star plus. I was completely surprised at the fabulous service, the beautiful rooms, and the great food. My most memorable experience there was going for a swim early the next morning in the hotel’s Olympic sized pool in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by beautiful tropical gardens. I was the only person in the pool. After swimming some 30 laps in crystal clear water of a perfect temperature, I pulled my self out of the pool and stretched out on my chaise lounge. Seconds later, a tall, white-uniformed steward in a turban brought me a tray of lotions and balms, as well as a huge beach towel. He asked me if I'd like anything from the bar. It was 7 a.m.!!

On the one hand, I felt like I was part of that old fantasy advertisement for Chanel No. 5. On the other hand, I knew what lay outside the walls of the Oberoi Hotel...the streets of Kolkata, where poverty, filth and pandemonium loomed. I decided to enjoy my moment of luxury, because soon I would experience the other side of India and I would need to keep this memory in reserve. I did not indulge myself in a drink, though!

In a couple of hours, another tour member and I met with our Kolkata guide who took us for a walk along the Ganges River, perhaps the filthiest water I’ve ever seen. It was shocking to see people standing in it, fishing in it, and playing in it. Our guide joked that we could swim in it too, if we wanted to have an ambulance waiting for us when we got out.

Next we went to visit the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by the Roman Catholic missionary, Mother Teresa. The hospital and nunnery still operates, though Mother Teresa passed away in 1997. Below are a few photos:

Sisters at the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, sitting near the tomb of Mother Teresa in Kolkata

Sisters at the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, sitting near the tomb of Mother Teresa in Kolkata

Malnourished young man sits at the corner of the home of Mother Teresa's Order of the Missionaries of Charity, hoping for a handout.

Malnourished young man sits at the corner of the home of Mother Teresa's Order of the Missionaries of Charity, hoping for a handout.

We continued from there to the bazaar in Kumartuli, where hundreds of artisans were working feverishly to complete their statues for an upcoming festival. The larger-than-life statues were made of a straw base and coated with plaster. They represented Hindu gods in various poses, and the effect was truly surreal. Pictures are below:

The craftsmanship on these figures is astounding, especially considering that they are not built to last beyond a few weeks.

The craftsmanship on these figures is astounding, especially considering that they are not built to last beyond a few weeks.

Statues and figurines are decked out in the most brilliant colors and jewels.

Statues and figurines are decked out in the most brilliant colors and jewels.

Artisan working on finishing statues for upcoming festival in Kolkata.

Artisan working on finishing statues for upcoming festival in Kolkata.

The next day, we departed from Kolkata for Bhutan, where we spent a week (read my previous blog) and then I returned to Delhi to begin a 17 day of northern India.

The first day in Delhi we were treated to a tuk-tuk drive through parts of Old Delhi, and what better way to experience firsthand the commotion, energy, noise, color and sheer madness of this city! Check out the video below and note the snarls of electric wiring on Delhi streets. It’s a wonder that there aren’t more power outages than already occur. I understand that in each neighborhood, there are certain key individuals who actually know where all of these wires go, and they can be hired to fix things or plug you in, sort of like illegal cable tapping on steroids.

After this sensory overload, we visited a Sikh temple named Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, which would be one of my most positively stunning experiences of this trip.

The courtyard of the Sikh Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi.

The courtyard of the Sikh Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi.

This huge complex has a kitchen, manned by both staff and volunteers, that feeds thousands of people every single day of the year for free, and anybody of any faith or nationality is invited to partake. We were shown through the Costco-sized kitchen where some of us helped to knead the dough for the chapati, and others just observed in amazement at the biggest cooking pots and kitchen crews that we had ever seen. Rows of turbaned and bearded cooks stirred wok-shaped pots the size of pick-up truck beds.

Sikh kitchen staff stir pots of food for the daily meal at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi.

Sikh kitchen staff stir pots of food for the daily meal at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi.

Volunteers knead dough for the countless chapatis served here every day.

Volunteers knead dough for the countless chapatis served here every day.

Thousands of people from any faith or creed eat free every day at this Sikh temple in Delhi.

Thousands of people from any faith or creed eat free every day at this Sikh temple in Delhi.

Bread was fried on huge grills. All of this was orchestrated so that massive quantities of food was served at the designated time. We were there just in time to see the crowds arriving to eat. It was truly inspiring. What a model for cities throughout the world to feed the hungry and bring communities together!

But soon we were off to the ancient city of Jaipur, also known as the “pink city” because so much of it is built from the local sandstone, which has a distinct pink/coral hue. I found the architecture here to be absolutely breathtaking, due in no small part to the color of the stone and light of this part of India. Rather than try to describe the buildings, I have posted several photos below, which, by the way, have not been edited in any way!

Inside the city Palace of Jaipur.

Inside the city Palace of Jaipur.

This is me standing in front of some doors from a courtyard at the City Palace of Jaipur.

This is me standing in front of some doors from a courtyard at the City Palace of Jaipur.

Palace of the Winds, Jaipur in late afternoon.

Palace of the Winds, Jaipur in late afternoon.

The Water Palace, Jaipur at sunrise.

The Water Palace, Jaipur at sunrise.

View of Amber Palace in the morning, Jaipur.

View of Amber Palace in the morning, Jaipur.

Woman sweeping the steps of the Amber Palace, Jaipur

Woman sweeping the steps of the Amber Palace, Jaipur

Ornately mirrored walls and ceilings of the Amber Palace, Jaipur invite self-reflection :-)

Ornately mirrored walls and ceilings of the Amber Palace, Jaipur invite self-reflection :-)

Two guards on a break at the Amber Palace, Jaipur.

Two guards on a break at the Amber Palace, Jaipur.

Jaipur was also a city of seemingly impromptu parades full of elephants, camels, costumed dancing folks, and decorated carts, all festooned with lights and accompanied with drums, flutes and dancing. Visitors were invited to join in, and at one point, a friend and I jumped on a camel-drawn cart and rode along until our tour guide called us back. It was loads of fun!

A parade I observed and then briefly joined in Jaipur.

A parade I observed and then briefly joined in Jaipur.

Jaipur was home to some of the most colorful bazaars in India. The giant mazeways of interconnected shops were full of textiles, saris, jewelry, cookware, all kinds of clothing, and you could easily get lost in it. Everybody was haggling for every purchase. We stuck together and traveled mostly single-file.

Vendors waiting to make a deal at the Johari Bazaar in Jaipur.

Vendors waiting to make a deal at the Johari Bazaar in Jaipur.

After Jaipur, we traveled to Rathambore National Park, a Bengal tiger reserve in the state of Rajastan. Rathambore is one of the eleven sites chosen for Project Tiger, India's national tiger conservation program, the largest such effort in the world. The park has more than a hundred square miles of forest and several large lakes. Until 1970 it was a hunting preserve of the maharajas.

Our tour group stayed just outside the park in make-believe sort of place called the White Palace. It covered acres of land and was modeled after the original Rajastani palace used by maharajas when they hunted tigers here.

Our rooms were build around tiled courtyards graced with fountains, where at night, the frogs serenaded each other. The grand dining room with its sparkling ceilings and chandeliers echoed the Amber Palace, and there was a sitting room with golden thrones for royal guests from the past.

Entrance to the White Palace Hotel, near Rathambore National Park, a tiger sanctuary.

Entrance to the White Palace Hotel, near Rathambore National Park, a tiger sanctuary.

It was all gloriously fake, except the tropical gardens, which were very real. The fragrance of the Frangapani blossoms was almost overpowering. And just to top it off, a dancing boy dressed in a red cloak and turban twirled and stamped his bare feet in a stunning performance of uninhibited androgyny!

My room at the White Palace recalled the past, with the huge mahogany 4-poster bed, giant ceiling fans and tall leaded glass windows. What completed the effect were the old black and white photographs displayed on the walls. They invariably depicted hunters, dressed in full safari garb, holding huge rifles, and standing over their trophy Bengal tiger carcasses.

The photos on the walls were not fake. They served as a testament to the fate of the Bengal tiger, which is now a critically endangered species. Ranthambore National Park is one of India’s 11 tiger sanctuaries, where the tiger is protected from hunting and poaching.

Spotting one of those few remaining tigers in the park was the main reason we came here. Early the next morning, we set out with our guide in an open-topped van down the narrow and winding dirt roads of the park. Many other safari vehicles were out and about, and frankly, I had little hope of actually seeing a tiger. There are only 26 in the park.

Driving into Rathambore National Park early in the morning, hoping to spot a Bengal tiger.

Driving into Rathambore National Park early in the morning, hoping to spot a Bengal tiger.

But then our guide spotted some fresh tiger tracks on the side of the road. He slowed the vehicle and made a quick turn to follow the tracks.

After about an hour in the park, our guide spotted fresh tiger tracks on the road.

After about an hour in the park, our guide spotted fresh tiger tracks on the road.

We drove slowly onto a short bridge that crossed a dry creek bed. Then, as I turned my head, there were two huge tigers casually lounging in the creek bed, only 30 feet away. I did a double-take to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. The tigers looked at us with total disinterest, fortunately. We were able to take lots of photos, but they barely moved. Apparently, they had recently eaten and were just kicking back. But we were thrilled!

One of the two young male Bengal tigers we viewed on our early morning drive in Rathambore National Park.

One of the two young male Bengal tigers we viewed on our early morning drive in Rathambore National Park.

Soon though, we would be on our way to India’s most iconic site, the Taj Majal in Agra.
I’ll dispense with the descriptions of this world-famous building, and just show you a few photos:

Me in my obligatory trick photo at the Taj Majal.

Me in my obligatory trick photo at the Taj Majal.

And a jump shot!

And a jump shot!

The Taj Mahal does not disappoint, especially if you go early in the morning before the heat becomes unbearable and the smog settles in. Below is a photo of the Taj Majal taken from another part of town, in early afternoon:

Taj Majal viewed through a typical blanket of smog.

Taj Majal viewed through a typical blanket of smog.

The air quality in Delhi is the worst in India, but I found it to be almost as bad in Agra and other cities that I visited. Coupled with heat in the 90s F and high humidity, air pollution in this country will only get worse with increasing climate change.

We were off again to visit the ancient Hindu Khajuraho temple complex, built from 950 A.D. to about 1500 A.D. in the Vindhya mountain range in north central India. The temples are most famous for their erotic carvings, but all kinds of human activities are depicted in these sculptures and reliefs. The Khajuraho complex is built in the same style of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I came away from these temples feeling like there was nothing really new under the sun since those ancient times, at least in the language of love!

Relief carvings, including erotic art, on the walls of the Khajuraho Group of Temples in north central India.

Relief carvings, including erotic art, on the walls of the Khajuraho Group of Temples in north central India.

Part of the ancient Kajuharo Group of Hindu temples in north central India. The complex is now a World Heritage Site.

Part of the ancient Kajuharo Group of Hindu temples in north central India. The complex is now a World Heritage Site.

In India, just when you think you couldn't possibly see anything more bizarre than what you've just seen . . . you do. And just to test this notion, we were off to Varanasi, the second oldest city in the world (after Jericho), and continuously inhabited for 5,000 years. Lonely Planet warns, "You're about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth."

Varanasi, located on the shores of the Ganges River is the cultural and spiritual center of India. Hindus believe that death in the city, or at least cremation there, will bring them salvation. So, it is India's primary center for pilgrimage. Some 600 cremations are performed every day in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, especially at sacred stone stairways along the river known as ghats. We saw coffins on the rooftops of cars coming into Varanasi to deliver their cargo to the ghats for cremation.

The most interesting thing to do in Varanasi is to take a boat ride just before sunset to approach one of the ghats from the water and witness a cremation from your boat. These rituals are open for viewing by the public but no photography is allowed once your boat nears the site. In order to get to the boat launch, you first have to travel into and through Old Varanasi, which is no small feat. Buses and cars are not allowed in the inner city, primarily because its convoluted maze of narrow alley ways prohibits the passage of such vehicles.  Your choices are motor scooter,  bicycle rickshaw or walking. Our group left our bus at the edge of the inner city and then, two by two, we alighted on bicycle rickshaws to take us within walking distance of the boat launch site on the Ganges.

 

Aboard a small wooden boat, our guide explains the Hindu ritual cremations we are about to witness on the shores of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

Aboard a small wooden boat, our guide explains the Hindu ritual cremations we are about to witness on the shores of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

While there is plenty of air pollution from all the smoke, there is no noticeable stench of burning flesh. Our guide explained that this was because of the sandalwood oil that is added to the fires.

Our boat approaches an ongoing cremation as the sun sets. Bodies are immersed in the waters of the Ganges before cremation. At the same time, pilgrims visiting the river bathe in the waters.

Our boat approaches an ongoing cremation as the sun sets. Bodies are immersed in the waters of the Ganges before cremation. At the same time, pilgrims visiting the river bathe in the waters.

As one cremation was going on, we watched as a pilgrim stripped down and bathed in the waters right next to where the bodies were being immersed prior to cremation. While there is a great deal of concern about water pollution in this part of the Ganges, people apparently believe that the sacredness of the Ganges prevents the water from doing any harm. Even our primary tour guide believed this to be the case.

I'm seated with my friend Nina in a bicycle rickshaw, getting ready to travel through Old Varanasi to the Ganges boat launch. The return trip would be hair-raising...

I'm seated with my friend Nina in a bicycle rickshaw, getting ready to travel through Old Varanasi to the Ganges boat launch. The return trip would be hair-raising...

When we left the cremation site and returned to shore, we stayed to witness a HIndu ceremony traditionally given at the end of each day by young male Brahmin priests. There were thousands of people attending, so we decided to leave early to make our exit before the crowds.  

We made it back to our rickshaw driver's designated spot and hopped on for the trip back to the bus. Little did we know that the route would change dramatically because of all the crowded traffic and we would take almost an hour to get back to the bus. Nina and I got increasingly worried the longer we failed to recognize any familiar sites or see anybody else from our group either in front of us or behind us. We wondered if we were being kidnapped!

Finally, to our great relief, we saw the bus at the side of the road. We were actually the first of our group to return! And so ended our journey to Varanasi, one that we would never forget.

On my last evening in India before departing to Bangkok, our tour group listened to a private sitar and tabla concert. All the women on the tour were dressed in saris for the concert. A lovely way to say goodbye to a fascinating and memorable country.

Me dressed in a sari on my last night in India, getting ready to attend a sitar concert.

Me dressed in a sari on my last night in India, getting ready to attend a sitar concert.