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Trip Report Impressions of India

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We five senior American family members had a wonderful personalized 21-day (plus a couple of days going and returning) tour of India over the last part of January. India is a fascinating country whose history, culture, traditions, and people are so very different from those of the United States. Spending three weeks there allowed us only to scratch the surface, whether culturally, geographically, or socially, of this vast and intriguing nation of 1.3 billion people, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable and educational experience. Go with an open mind and a sense of adventure and you will likely be enthralled, but do be prepared for some “culture shock.” We usually travel on our own but did not want to attempt anything as challenging as negotiating our way through India by ourselves, so we used a reputable tour company to help us plan and make arrangements for this trip and were accompanied by someone every step of the way.

Our itinerary was by design quite ambitious, moving frequently mostly among the popular Rajasthan cities and adding a few lesser-known places. We spent one or two nights each in Delhi, Udaipur, Sardargarh, Rohet, Manvar Desert Camp, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Ranthambhore, Agra, Khajuraho, Panna National Park, and finally Varanasi. Each of these locations had something different to offer, and we stayed very busy trying to see and do as much as possible, without completely wearing ourselves out, since it is unlikely that we will ever get back to India. We sought out and engaged in numerous types of activities – monument tours, city walks, boat rides, safari game drives, camel and elephant rides (as well as hugging, painting, and feeding the pachyderms), village tours, a cooking class, cultural shows, a slum tour, overnights in a tent in the desert and a hut in a national park, and lots of just driving from place to place.

Our accommodations were varied -- mostly in fairly upscale hotels (some heritage, some modern, some mixed), plus a couple of comfortable tents, a remote camp, and a guest house, all of which were more than adequate and some of which were exceptional. Many of the swimming pools looked very inviting, but it was a bit too cool for a dip. The service providers in the hotels and elsewhere almost universally exhibited the motto in India that “the guest is like god,” and we exchanged endless courteous, folded-hands “Namaste’s” throughout our trip.

We were cautious about our dining and avoided, for the most part, eating any of the tempting street food. We usually but not always ate at restaurants that seemed to cater to western tourists and at our hotels, but some of us nonetheless did have some stomach “discomfort.” Every place we stayed offered an included buffet breakfast, usually with many options and an omelet station. Even though the Indian food was quite tasty, after 21 days of dal, paneer, naan, masala chai, vindaloo, butter chicken, biryani, kheer, etc., we may not be craving Indian food again for a while. ;-) A few times we couldn’t resist reverting back to more familiar dishes – fish and chips, pizza, chow mein. I also succumbed in Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport on the way back home and had my first beef in three weeks -- a hamburger, with fries and a coke -- with ice! -- at McDonald’s, no less.

We drove between most locations in a spacious and comfortable van, often for several hours, but did fly for three of the longer distances. The domestic flights were fine and generally on time, and security at the airports was extremely tight -- I thought the very thorough “friskers” should at least have bought me dinner first. We took one train ride, which was delayed for two hours because of early morning fog, but the ride itself was pleasant enough and a nice change of pace. We also rode in tuk-tuks, buses, bicycle rickshaws, jeeps, motorboats, rowboats – and did a lot of walking. Sometimes while we were walking local people, most often teenagers, would come over so that they could take photos with us, especially our “Maharaja” look-alike and our tall light-haired women. Small children were delighted when we would take photos of them and then show them their digital images.

Many of the monuments in India are massive, impressive, and of course very old, with several of the ones we visited being UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We walked around ancient forts, some in ruins but others still in good condition and being utilized in some capacity. We toured magnificent palaces of the maharajas, where some sections have been converted to luxury hotels to help defray the costs of maintaining the historic buildings, and we stayed in two such fort/hotels. We stood in awe at ornately carved temples – Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain – and Muslim mosques built a millennium (well, at least centuries) ago. Of course we took the mandatory group photo in front of the “#1 Wonder of the World” Taj Mahal, which is majestic (when you can see it through the mist) even while its dazzling white marble is in the process of being cleaned.

The traffic in India is unbelievably chaotic, so your driver is very important, and hopefully they possess the three critical elements for driving there – good horn, good brakes, and good luck. Assuming that India does actually have some official traffic regulations, they seem to be largely ignored, although the red stop lights are usually given some grudging recognition. Nonetheless, there do seem to be unofficial “rules of the road” that every person, vehicle, and animal that occupies the teeming streets seems to acknowledge, and somehow it works. Three inches seems to be considered an adequate space between vehicles, and the right-of-way belongs to whomever gets there first. Frequent honking apparently is mandatory, to alert other drivers as to your presence and sometimes as a plea to move over and let you pass. Most of the large trucks even have “Please Honk” (or “Use Dipper at Night”) written on the back. Even walking through the very narrow alleyways in the old towns you have to be on alert for motorbikes zipping past you at excessive speeds, plus the occasional ambling cow. All of our drivers’ skills exceeded any rational explanation – they wedged our large van (with much use of the horn) through the smallest gaps in the swarming, noisy congestion of cars, motorbikes, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, pushcarts, bicycles, camel carts, tractors, cattle, dogs, goats, pigs, donkeys, and pedestrians, plus the occasional monkey, camel, or elephant. We had one special driver for 15 of our 21 days in India, and after spending so much time with him he was as much a friend as a driver. Sitting in the front seat observing his adroit maneuvering was compelling, albeit sometimes a bit alarming.

Simply driving around in the cities and also from town to town and through the villages in India offers a diverse and fascinating tableau:
• Much beautiful scenery, with temples perched on top of distant hills.
• Mile after mile of beets, wheat, sugar cane, beans, rice, yellow-topped mustard plants, . . . , with workers toiling in the fields, and nary a mechanical farm implement anywhere.
• Innumerable jam-packed tiny businesses operating side-by-side-by-side just at the edge of the congested streets, with crowds of local people congregating among them engaging in community, conversation, and commerce.
• Beautiful children, with their big brown eyes, and even adults smiling and waving as we “white faces” drove by in our big tourist van.
• Cricket, not just a sport but a “religion” in India, being played in playgrounds, fields, street corners, just about anywhere, with equipment of all kinds.
• Marketplaces filled with lovely fresh vegetables and anything else you can imagine.
• Women dressed in their colorful traditional saris walking along the side of the road with large bundles, often firewood, balanced on top of their head, sometimes with babies in their arms.
• Untold numbers of colorfully decorated and often vastly overloaded trucks on the roads, as well as parked idly along the side of the roads awaiting their turn to go somewhere.
• Countless motorbikes, with as many as five people, some of them small children, clutching one another to stay on, testing fate as they zipped between other vehicles.
• Buses, trucks, and tuk-tuk taxis absolutely overflowing with people, often with additional passengers sitting on top or hanging on to the sides or rear of the vehicle.
• Cattle, goats, dogs, sheep, pigs, and water buffalo wandering, or sometimes just sleeping, on the roads. Some roads, particularly the toll roads, were like superhighways, others were really not much more than pothole-filled paths, but there often were animals to dodge.
• People feeding large piles of grass to cattle, to engender some good karma.
• Ingenious home-made vehicles driving down the road, often pulling trailers over-filled with sand, bricks, sandstone, lumber, wheat, animals, people, . . .

It is true that there is much poverty and squalor in India, in both the cities and villages, with the average per capita income reported to be only about $616 in 2013. Despite the abundance of relatively poor living conditions, almost all of the people with whom we came in contact were friendly and seemed happy. As in almost all large cities throughout the world, there are some beggars on the streets and it is heart-breaking to see their sad plight. “Hawkers” selling trinkets, postcards, maps, and other items surrounded us whenever we would get out of the van to visit a site, and although they were insistent and persistent we were able to get through the gauntlet by repeating “No, thank you” over and over again. If we gave the slightest indication to a sidewalk merchant that we might be interested in buying anything, his colleagues/competitors would become even more aggressive. We realize that they were merely trying to eke out a meager living, and although it sometimes made us uncomfortable we never felt in any danger. Although there is much trash, many people do make an effort to control it, continually sweeping and raking with their straw brooms and brushes.

We visited workshops of potters, weavers, rugmakers, block printers, a blacksmith, a grain grinder, sari embroiderers, jewelers, and other artisans who are still practicing crafts passed down from generation to generation and still using machines from eras long past. We stood in palaces where maharajas once sat watching their harems dance. We marveled at the enormity of ancient edifices like the Red Fort in Agra. In Varanasi we sat on the platform of a holy man at Dasaswamedh Ghat to watch an aarti ceremony (Hindu religious ritual of worship), and from a distance observed multiple simultaneous cremations on the banks of the sacred Ganges River. We gazed at the beauty of the magnificent Taj Mahal, built almost 500 years ago solely to house the remains (which we were told aren’t really there) of a Moghul emperor’s wife. We visited a Bishnoi village and witnessed five elders performing the ancient opium ceremony. The historical allusions throughout our trip were endless and fascinating.

Much has been made of problems caused by the recent demonetization in India. We did have some trouble finding ATM’s with cash in them, and there were usually queues of people trying to extract elusive rupees. The limits of how much cash you could get varied – one currency exchange would only give me 4800 rupees, whereas the one functioning ATM we did find would dole out 10,000 rupees per person. It seems that the problem is much more serious in the countryside than in the cities, and more serious for the poorer cash-oriented people than the well-to-do who are more accustomed to transactions conducted in plastic currency.

India may not be for everyone. It is a long way there from Texas (about a 24 hour journey and 11-1/2 time zones away), and just as far coming back. We were fortunate to have such an enjoyable trip, enhanced by having a fun and compatible group of travelers, excellent weather, a very good tour company, and no real problems. If you want to experience something new that will give you an eye-opening perspective into a totally different culture, give India a try.

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