Category Archives: India

The trip before the trip

After breakfast we hopped on a little bus for a tour of Delhi.  Our first stop was the spice market, which was almost as crowded and narrow as the souks of Morocco. There was so much traffic, so many overhead wires, and so many little shops that I had to take a video in hopes of getting it all in.

And over our heads the monkeys were navigating along the wires, just the way squirrels do at home.  Here’s a look at the market where we got a tour of the various teas and spices and how to use them.  I ended up with several varieties, some for presents and some for ME.

A few more views, of hot peppers for sale and a dried fruit stand. 

We walked back through the market, where I noticed this broom, which I was to see often as women swept the streets or sidewalks in front of their stores.

From here we got into auto rickshaws, or tuktuks, for a little tour of the streets.  This is Carol and her sister Lucy traveling next to ours.   Our rickshaws were actually larger than the usual ones.  The smaller ones are used by everyone: three wheels, open sides, often crammed chock full of people and belongings.  Here’s an image taken by someone else.A wild ride and you have to hang on tight!

Back on the bus, we traveled through the center of town with some difficulty, since many streets were closed in anticipation of Independence Day celebrations.  Modi had invited Bolsonaro, the Brazilian autocrat, and I can only imagine they had a great time together, plotting how to oppress their people.  We caught sight of several government buildings and of the Red Fort, which, sadly, was not on our agenda.

(Not a great picture, since it was taken from the bus.)  I was reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns on this trip and it made me wish that we could have spent more time here.  A reason to go back!

Partway through the tour, our guide tried to explain the difference between Hindus and Muslims. Well!  They (the Muslims) are all terrorists, their allegiance is to jihad not to India, they breed like rabbits while Hindus have only one child, where will the Hindus go, there is no Hindu country, and on and on.  It was quite unpleasant, but at least we did hear the unfiltered views of a man who undoubtedly represents quite of a few of his countrymen.

Our final stop was Humayan’s Tomb, commissioned by Humayan’s wife and completed in 1572.  It is said to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  I fear that I did not fully appreciate the architecture or the setting, but I do know that the building and the surrounding gardens are a an example of Mughal architecture, borrowing from Indian as well as Islamic styles.  Built of red sandstone and white marble, its lovely arches and tiles again reminded me of Morocco.  Our guide took a picture of us standing in front of it. 

The happy crew:  Caron, Cathy, Caity,  Christine, Linda, Carol, Lucie, Pati and me (looking oddly belligerent).

We left Delhi and our guide about mid-afternoon and headed for Agra in a little bus with seats for fifteen, so we each had room to spread out our marigold necklaces, bouquets of flowers, and personal needs (water bottles which are passed out by the guides throughout our trip, purse, phone, guidebooks, snacks, etc.).  It was a long, long drive to Agra through very flat country but worth it in the end. We had a delicious late dinner (not  my  usual  style  but I survived!). It was nicely presented even though we were not sure what we were eating.

After checking in at the very first-world Radisson Hotel, we agreed to meet at 6:30 the next morning to see the Taj Mahal at dawn.

Such a good idea! The light was magical as we entered the site,

and there were crowds to be sure, but not as insane as it will undoubtedly get later.

We entered  through the west gate,which is decorated with elegant calligraphy

using pietra dura, inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones.  (As always, applique designs leapt out at me.)

Our first sight through an archway was the iconic view, with the early morning mist giving it an ethereal look.

It was unexpectedly moving.  Like seeing Michelangelo’s David, the image is so well known as to be a cliche, but when you see it in person it is arresting.

We all kept taking pictures, because the light kept changing.  Here it is with the pink light of dawn.

Inside the mausoleum, you can see the tombs (though they are apparently replicas) and appreciate the beautifully carved stone filigree screens. 

Guides are positioned along here with flashlights so that you can see how the semi-precious stones glow in the light.

We saw lots of birds, including big green parakeets and the iconic hoopoe (not my picture). We wandered along the plinth and enjoyed the beautiful views of the Yamuna River below, with boatmen looking like an impressionistic painting.

Of course, when planning the trip it seemed logical to visit the Taj Mahal since it was so close to where we were going, and I was thrilled when Cathy set it all up for us.  But I had never longed to see it, so although I was expectant I was not exactly excited.  But then we saw it, and it was simply magical.

 

Wildlife and exoticism

This was not a nature trip, but you can’t help noticing the animals everywhere in India.  In my neighborhood I’m likely to see cats, dogs and squirrels, along with robins, wrens, finches, woodpeckers, chickadees, hawks, etc.  But here was a new array of everyday creatures!

Dogs are hardly unusual, but they were everywhere in the streets, never on a leash or seeming to belong to anyone.  This one was enjoying the sunshine while stretched out on block-printed fabric drying in Bagru. 

They appeared healthy and were beautifully behaved, so I asked one of our guides who took care of them.  He said that when you made your chapatis in the morning, you made one for the dog, and when you made your chapatis in the evening, you made one for the cow.  I’m not sure if that was metaphorical or literal…

There were several kinds of cows, some dairy cows and some not. 

This dairy cow was strolling through Bagur.

This beauty was surrounded by words that I can’t decipher.

And this one seems to have been decorated?

Monkeys were ubiquitous, climbing up telephone poles, along the rooftops, and hanging from wires. 

These monkeys were outside of the vegetable market in Jaipur.

This one was strolling along among the tourists at the Taj Mahal.

This monkey is posing with a kite at the step well. (Kite flying is a huge pastime in Jaipur, and we saw these tiny kites in the sky all the time, especially at the end of the day.  When they coat the strings with powdered glass for competitions, they can be a danger to people and especially to birds, but it is beautiful to watch them soar.)

This mama and baby were climbing above electrical wires in the spice market in Delhi.  We were cautioned not to play with them or feed them, and, fascinating though they were, I wasn’t tempted.

We saw a few elephants thumping along the streets, but the only one I captured with my camera is this one, decorated for tourists, along the lake.

Cathy is paying the driver for permission to pet it.

Camels were seen more often, usually as beasts of burden but for tourists, too.  Here’s a glimpse of one in the street in Sanganer that carried a load on its back.

This one was waiting for customers down the road from our hotel who could be tempted into a ride.

But the creepiest of all was this human monkey.  He was roaming around in a craft market we visited.  If I had managed to get a video, you would have seen just how awful he was, coming up behind people and grabbing their bags, racing along on all fours like a real monkey, and in general behaving like a scary creature that’s supposed to be funny.  I think he might have been a representation of Hanuman, a god who is “generally depicted as a man with the face of a monkey and a long tail.”  Although the people in these pictures are laughing, there were a couple of children in tears.

Finally, a note on exoticism.  It’s defined as “the charm of the unfamiliar,” but it can also be a way of distancing yourself from what you are seeing.  In a culture as different from mine as India is, I’m afraid that some of what I saw was just that:  a strange and fascinating way of life that I don’t really understand.  But I’m trying!

So, I went to India!

I must have been on a mailing list from Amy Butler, because that’s how I learned about her workshop. She and Sujata Shah went to India two years ago with three groups, one week each, and 2020 was the return trip. Since none of my usual traveling companions was interested, I just signed myself up, thinking that I would be with like-minded people and in a little bit of a bubble for my first encounter with a very different place. Sixteen of us were signed up for the trip and nine of us went on a pre-trip jaunt to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.  It was exhausting, gorgeous, surprising, beautiful, and overwhelming.

The drill is that you land in Delhi close to midnight and go immediately to your hotel.  Steve from Eternal Journeys had arranged all of our transport and escorts, so we just looked for our name at the airport and trooped onto a minibus that took us to our hotel.  The marigold necklaces and bunch of flowers are traditional, and we festooned ourselves and the bus seats with them for the next few days.

After breakfast – we had our choices of coffee, tea, eggs, yogurt, bread and Indian delights, a spread that would become familiar soon – we took a quick walk around the neighborhood before the bus came, and I saw my first cow in the street.  This soon became routine, but it is startling the first time you see it.

(Those are house crows on top of this cow.)

First impressions: a friendly group of women, a very different place, and delicious food.  Onward!