May 2008

Latitude Adjustment: Exotic India

Author: Lois Dudley

Wanting to visit India since reading M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, I was excited to begin my journey. Arriving in New Delhi at 10:30 p.m., I was amazed to be in “rush hour” traffic. At midnight in September, the temperature was 100 degrees, making an air conditioned taxi a must.

The Taj Mahal hotel was lovely. Staff was extremely attentive. My taste buds became acquainted with the food of India at breakfast. When asked if I would like a Masala omelet, I answered, “Yes, thank you,” though I had no idea what I would be getting.

Trying something very different is one of the joys of traveling in exotic countries. This omelet became my signature breakfast every day. It was perfectly prepared with tomatoes, onions and green, crisp chilies which were a little spicy—just delicious.

Breads were wonderful. I became addicted to tea by its aroma and taste. Baked yogurt was fantastic. Baked in clay pots, it had a fine texture and was yummy. Vegetables were enticing in every kind of dish. It was very easy becoming a vegetarian during my stay.

Touring Old Delhi, I was surprised by the size of the Jama Masjid mosque—the courtyard can hold 25,000 people. Many steps lead to a gated entrance where you leave your shoes. Sun-heated stone floors were too hot for bare feet, so a “burlap sidewalk” had been laid for walking. This mosque was an introduction to their lovely architecture. Scalloped archways, graceful minarets, bold towers with rounded roofs and fantastic carvings kept me entranced throughout my journey.

Quite a contrast were the mazes of tangled wires carrying electricity throughout the city.
Huge cables, braided and wound together, snaked between buildings. They drooped over streets teeming with rickshaws, three-wheeled taxis, horse/camel-drawn wagons, buses, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and a few cars along with pedestrians all maneuvering around cows and pigs—an amazing sight.

Driving in India is really “good.” It requires good luck, good reflexes and a good horn! Drivers blow the horn when they are going to pass another vehicle which creates a cacophony to your ears. Unfortunately, some drivers do not have a horn!

Other places visited were the Red Fort, a majestic walled enclosure with beautiful inlays; lovely ruins of the medieval city of Delhi; monument to Mahatma Gandhi erected on the site of his funeral pyre; India Gate commemorating the soldiers who died in WWI; and Humauyun’s Tomb, a world Heritage site and the forerunner of the Taj Mahal. Each of these structures and the gardens were feasts for the eyes.

The tour was during monsoon season, so we had lots of rain. One day the weather forecast was for “a nice monsoon day!” It was very hot throughout my stay, much like Hilton Head Island in the summer.

Arriving in Udaipur, I was transferred to my hotel by boat. The Lake Palace on Lake Pichola had been a summer retreat for the royal family and was indeed “royal.” This area is a marvel of beauty. Verdant hills surround three sides of Lake Pichola. The Jewel in the Crown was filmed here. Udaipur is aptly described as romantic, wistful and serene.

Udaipur’s City Palace is a wonder to behold. Very narrow angled hallways ended in low archways. Designed for protection, when invaders stooped to go through the archway, their heads were easily separated from their bodies. This greatly reduced hand-to-hand combat.

Another hotel, Oberoi Udaivillas, is a fantastic resort set in the base of the hills across from the City Palace on Lake Pichola. Landscaping and rooms were spectacular.

Flying to Jaipur, it was a 50-minute drive to the Rambaugh Palace, another wonderfully luxurious place. Jaipur is known as the pink city due to its pink plastered stone buildings. A beauty is the Wind Palace. Small casements were built into curved facades, each with a balcony and crowning arch. These windows allowed cool air to circulate and for ladies to watch activities without being seen. It looks like it belongs in a fairytale.

My next morning was pure joy—watching elephants being washed and playing in the river. They were just like kids. One splashed another with water, who splashed back, and then another joined in.

An elephant was my transport to the Amber Fort. Brightly painted, she lumbered up the trail with many others. I took a banana for her tip and she loved it. From the Amber Fort, you can see a wall which looks much like the Great Wall of China, although much narrower.

The road to Agra was quite rough due to the rains. Arriving in Agra, site of the beautifully magnificent Taj Mahal, I was shocked to see many garbage piles. Traffic was flowing in both directions in both lanes. People and cows were everywhere. Two and a half million people live here, and at times, I felt they were all on the same street with me!

My hotel was the Oberoi Hotel Amervilas—each room has a view of the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is as breathtaking as you can imagine. Pouring rain could not diminish the glamour and magnificence of this structure. Filigree screening surrounding the tombs is exquisite. Flowers carved in the walls are beautiful. It is the ultimate symbol of love.

From the Taj, I went to the Agra Fort, a wonderfully beautiful place on the river down from the Taj. Shah Jahan, who had the Taj Mahal erected as a memorial to his wife, built a private palace within the fort. The site is quite restful. From his private palace he could see the bend of the river and the beauty of the Taj Mahal. The Agra Fort was built in a crescent following the gentle curve of the river, and gardens were planted in intricate patterns.

Off to Varanasi, I was surprised to see it was poorer than Agra. And nighttime was busier than the day. Sunrise is the time to go to the Ganges. Walking through the mud streets, trying to circumvent cow dung and puddles of water with only dimmed lights or candles denoting the outline of the lanes, was tricky.

The Ganges is thronged with people of all ages—bathing, washing clothes, praying, conversing and watching us watch them. Cremation sites dot the river, operating 24 hours a day. Women are not allowed at cremations for fear their wailing and crying will confuse the spirit, so only men go to the pyre.

I found that whenever I became enthralled with an activity or site around me, I forgot about the filth and garbage. The Ganges has a sacred pulse. You are drawn into the rites taking place.

Exotic and intriguing, India is an incredible land to which I will someday return.

Lois Dudley is a travel associate with Valerie Wilson Travel.

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