Summing It Up

India is not for everyone. Based on what we experienced in Rajasthan it is noisy, dirty, crowded and chaotic.  The infrastructure is deplorable, and I marvel at the ability of people to survive on roads where everyone is competing for space.  It’s not enough that that applies to every kind of wheeled vehicle but add cows, elephants, camels and goats to the mix and it gets more than a little frightening.

That being said, there is another way of looking at it. India is a way of life, one that I suspect is quite different from that of many visitors.  To enjoy what it has to offer one should go with heart and mind open to the experience.  One guide said it best when he advised not to just focus on the sights but to see the life.

The life has much to do with Hindu tradition.  Marriages are arranged, and couples share their life with the husband’s family.  While husbands have considerable freedom, wives typically stay close to home and are not to go out at night for fear of being labeled with uncomplimentary terms. 

For the most part, women are illiterate and according to one guide, cell phones have provided them a way to communicate with their friends and family.  They may not be able to read or write but they have learned to identify numbers.  Hopefully, the fact that young girls are now attending school will change that in time. Again quoting a guide, women who are educated and working outside the home are often castigated by family and friends for having broken with tradition.  All this leads me to believe it would be difficult being a woman in India.

Cremation is the norm except for children and unmarried young women whose remains may be buried or with girls between 12 and 18 set adrift on the Ganges.

Business is conducted on the street or in nondescript store fronts.  There is little evidence of malls or department stores yet there appears to be no lack of available goods and services.

There are many historically interesting sites to visit all of which add to understanding the culture.

If you are a textile loving person, India is heaven.  The beauty of the work is breathtaking though I can’t say much about the working conditions or the equipment.  When it came to weaving, I was blown away.  Compared to my sophisticated setup the looms are primitive yet I can’t imagine creating the intricate designs that were common.   Interestingly, much of the textiles are created by men though women working at home do most of what is hand stitched.

Let me conclude this rambling by saying that if you go to India, treat yourself to great hotels.  Some are palaces formerly occupied by maharajahs with decor that is over the top.  In addition, the staff is attentive, courteous and kind in a gentle way that is not always a characteristic of westerners.

Despite all its differences, I totally enjoyed the experience of India and am glad to have gone now when it still retains much of its old culture.  I suspect in years to come that will change and India will be a different place.   If you are one who enjoys immersing yourself in place and taking away what it offers, then India is a place to consider.

 

Last Stop: Udaipur

With many harrowing hours on the bus behind us, we arrived at our final destination, Udaipur said to be the Venice of the East. The bus had to traverse a very narrow street not wide enough for two smaller vehicles much less a big one so our entry was rather dramatic in that we had cars, bicycles and motorbikes backed up in every direction. Talk about some horn honking!

As we navigated our way through traffic, I noticed something very different about Udaipur. It was clean, the sky was clear, there was more green and in the distance could be seen mountains and water meaning we had left the desert behind.

After a nerve wracking ride, we left the bus to board a boat that would take us to our hotel, the Leela Palace. Seeing it in the distance made my heart beat a little faster as it appeared we had saved the best for last.

And so it was. Rooms were sumptuous with a comfortable sitting area

and inviting views in every direction.

At every turn, the hotel was beautifully appointed making me want to stay there for days. It would take days just to learn one’s way around!

As much as I hated to leave the hotel, there were sights to see. Again by boat, we headed toward the City Palace, an enormous complex dominating Pichola Lake.

It is impossible to describe the majesty of this place with its graceful arches and stained Venetian glass,

its stunning works of art done with exacting detail

and breathtaking painted surfaces telling the story of the culture that had existed there. Photographs don’t begin to do the City Palace justice.

Across the way and again accessible only by boat is the Jag Mandir Palace which was used as a summer place by the royal family. Today it is a hotel and a popular site for weddings and other social events.

Having had our fill of sightseeing, we returned to the hotel for a wonderful evening of shared friendship, good food and entertainment.

Some of us even got into the act though we were not nearly as glamorous or graceful as the beautiful performers.

All too soon our stay was over and once again we boarded the bus for the airport and flights that would return us home. For each of us the experience was different, but there is no question that every one of us has memories indelibly inscribed in our heart. That is the gift of travel.

Next Up: The Js

Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Jodphur are the Js. What do they have in common? Each has a fort that once served as protection high above the city, and each is referred to by color.

Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, is the Pink City so called because of the pink painted buildings lining the streets of the old walled city. A highlight here is the fortress/palace of Amber built in the 1500’s.

It sits high on a hillside which means a long walk to the top or opting to take the trek on an elephant.

As with other sites we have visited, the architectural details are magnificent. One can wander for hours taking them all in.

A unique feature of the Amber fortress is the use of mirrors on walls and ceilings. Their glimmering surfaces cast reflections in every direction.

While there is much more to share about Jaipur, let’s move on to Jaisalmer, the Golden City located in the desert near India’s western border with Pakistan.

Here, too, is a fortress, and unlike others it continues to be inhabited, and its alleyways are alive with activity.

Ornate havelis dating back centuries and once home to wealthy merchants are still intact.

I love the color that changes from place to place

and signs of life that abound.

The main tourist attraction in Jaisalmer is a camel ride in the desert. I have to confess that the experience won’t go down as a highlight of this adventure!

The third J is Jodphur, the Blue City. Blue is said to be the color favored by Lord Shiva as well as a way of identifying property owned by the Brahmins, members of the highest caste. Speaking of caste, I am somewhat confused by the difference between it and class which were the terms used by guides to define social structure.In Jodphur, as in other places, what strikes me most are sights of people doing everyday things.

I’m taken in by its vibrancy

displayed in so many ways.

Here and elsewhere I am continually amazed and sometimes frightened by people and vehicles vying for space in what seems to be a most disorderly fashion. While that may seem unusual to me as a visitor, I suspect those who live here see it as nothing more than a way of life.

Again and again during this adventure, I am struck by the differences between my own life and that in this sprawling country, and I cannot help but wonder how it would be perceived by those who I am observing.

Next Up: Bikaner

After a very long and tiring bus ride, we arrived in Bikaner too tired to do anything other than shower and go to bed. Next day there were sights to see, but most of us didn’t have the energy to trek around. Bikaner was said to have some wonderful textiles, so four of us headed off to find them.

It didn’t take long for us to find ourselves in textile heaven!

Piece after piece was thrown on the floor in front of us. Each one was handmade exemplifying astonishing skills from weaving to appliqué to embroidery.

Some were of the finest fibers with the very softest being those from a baby camel. I never would have thought camel hair to be suitable for weaving.

Much of the work is done by women working at home, but here we saw these ladies sitting on the floor doing their lovely handwork. While I was in awe of their work, I did not envy their sitting on a hard floor while doing it.

I can’t tell you how long we were in this one shop, but I can tell you that we purchased so much that we were presented with a gift, a sari. Now that is something we weren’t going to buy for ourselves, but we are very happy to have this special memory of India and had fun going native that evening at dinner.

Back at our hotel, we were welcomed by this gentleman who was only too happy to have his photo taken. I was quite surprised when he pulled from behind his ears the rather dramatic extension of his mustache. I must say we’ve seen some pretty spectacular facial hair during this adventure!

Speaking of hotels, the ones we have experienced have been spectacular. Several are palaces that have belonged to maharajahs. In fact, some still claim ownership and lease the property to hotel operators. Quite a nice way to have all those rooms become income producing, wouldn’t you say?

In addition to being very plush the service is amazing. Every employee goes out of his or her way to be helpful and pleasant.

And let me not forget the food, always freshly prepared

and beautifully presented.

Yes, this trip is a kaleidoscope of contrasts which is what makes is so very interesting.

Musings From the Bus

Getting around in India is a bit of a challenge as means for traveling from one place to another are limited. On this journey, we ladies traveled mostly by bus. While our driver was very competent, there were some pretty scary moments on roads so narrow that it seemed as if vehicles traveling in opposite direction were playing chicken! Add to that the deplorable condition of most roads and travel becomes a nightmare! Bumping over them made my teeth hurt or maybe that was due to my jaws being so tightly clenched!

Slowing down progress were the cows moving aimlessly on the roads. Honking did nothing to move them along, and cows being sacred, one dare not hit them.

Speaking of cows, they strike me as pitiful. They are undernourished with most of their food appearing to be whatever they can forage on the street. When they are hot or tired, there’s nothing more than dirt or a hard surface on which to lay. I wished again and again for them to have someone to care for them.

Our travel was limited to Rajasthan, and as we passed through the countryside it became clear that much of India is a third world country. In most areas families dwelt in structures no larger than 12×12 without bathrooms, running water or electricity. Few had windows or doors and I wondered how the homes stayed dry during the monsoon season. Perhaps it was the more fortunate who had homes as there were a number of tents serving as shelter. The tent was often no more than cloth thrown over a pole and fixed to the ground with stakes.

Except in market areas we didn’t see as many women as men. Men gathered in groups beneath shaded areas. Women drew water from pumps, did laundry, cooked over open fire, bathed children and all the other things wives/mothers do.

Sometimes they were observed herding goats providing yet another obstacle on the narrow roads.

While it was not uncommon to see men dressed in western clothing, women were always attired in colorful traditional garb the colors of which changed from area to area.

Before coming to India, I was told by friends from here to expect to see poverty and dirt. Even so, the degree is overwhelming, and I’m thinking it will be a long time before India can deal with all its challenges. How to improve quality of life for more than a billion people strikes me as an almost insurmountable task. I think it was in Varanasi the guide used the term “to see the life”. That is what I’m experiencing, and I am grateful for opportunity that opens my eyes to life that is so different from my own. How to make a difference in the world is the question I keep asking myself. Considering the hours left on the bus, I have plenty of time to think about it.

Next Up: Ranthambore

This was the stop to which I’ve most looked forward because it meant staying in a tent camp and going on a safari. Yes, a safari in India to look for Bengal tigers which at one time were so plentiful but thanks to game hunters now number just over 2000. Sixty-four of those are said to be in the Ranthambore Forest.

The tent camp Sher Bagh was magical.

Accommodations were as nice as in any hotel you can imagine though it was a bit of a challenge to navigate the mosquito netting at night.

In the evening the grounds glittered in the light of kerosene lamps lighting paths and hanging from trees making it seem like fairy land.

The evening meal was served around a bonfire which only added to the romance of place. I was in absolute heaven and celebrated with a martini! I did miss the hubby at that moment.

There were two safari rides, one in the late afternoon, the other early morning. As we began the afternoon excursion we saw first a mongoose which our guide said was a good luck sign.

And good luck we had. Only minutes into the drive we spotted a Bengal, but he moved so fast it was hard to get more than a glimpse. Minutes later came the real thrill, a large male resting by a stream.

After a few minutes, it got up and stretched

giving new meaning to the yoga pose cat stretch!

Then he walked away moving ever so gracefully.

He didn’t go far before he found a new place to lay down. I couldn’t have been more excited than in those few minutes, and I was so lucky to have a zoom lens which allowed me to capture the entire sequence of movement. As the drive continued, we saw 2 more tigers but only from a distance which made the close encounter even more special. The guide was equally pleased and very grateful to the mongoose!

The morning drive was not as rewarding when it came to tigers, but there were other interesting animals and birds that made the excursion worthwhile. Sambar

and spotted deer were plentiful.

Spotting a brown fish owl was unusual said the guide so again we felt very lucky.

Some birds were very colorful, but it was hard to capture them because they were always on the move. A rose ring parakeet was good enough to pose

and a rufous treepie wasn’t about to be excluded from a photo op!

We were thoroughly entertained by the monkeys’ antics. Little ones frolicked like energetic children.

When a mother sensed danger from an oncoming vehicle she quickly snatched up her young and held it close until all threat had passed. I couldn’t help but think how similar her behavior was to a human’s.

Though the forest holds many more species than we saw, I felt no disappointment.

Returning to the camp in beautiful morning light,

I took in all its special features and thought that no matter what the rest of the trip holds I would be happy having had this experience.
I am so grateful for the privilege of travel which adds new dimension to life.

Next Up: Agra

Why go to Agra? Because it is the location of one of the world’s most famous structures, the Taj Mahal. I won’t go into its history except to say it was built between 1632 and 1648 to honor the deceased second wife of Shah Jahan. This woman bore 14 children in 19 years and died giving birth to the 14th. I have to say that made her worthy of her husband’s devotion.

We arrived at the site shortly after 6 AM and already there were throngs of people.

At first glimpse of the magnificent building, guess what happened? Everyone stopped to take a photo creating a crush of humanity.

It is difficult not to have an omigosh moment as something so historically familiar becomes a reality. The white marble glistens despite the haze that appears to be perpetual in India.

Looking at the details of the Taj Mahal, one cannot help but marvel at the skills of laborers who worked with tools barely more sophisticated than hammer and chisel.

It always amazes me how often precious materials are used to create intricate designs in ancient construction. Here the beautiful exterior inlay designs are created with onyx, jade and jasper.

Just as stunning as the Taj Mahal are the buildings surrounding it.

The differing material and style create a lovely contrast.

From the Taj Mahal we ventured to the Red Fort which in some ways was even more dramatic.

Built over an eight year period the century before, it ultimately became a place of imprisonment for Shah Jahan as he lost power. It was irritating to learn he was placed there by one of his sons which goes to show that family loyalty is not always a priority!

There were multiple architectural influences here adding to the fort’s interest. They ranged from Arabic

to those more associated with Indian design.

One of the things that makes visits to sites like these is having a good guide. Ours was that and more as he shared information with knowledge and enthusiasm. He was open to questions about subjects having to do with culture, the answers to which go a long way to help understand place.