by Nathan Bruinooge
Schipol Airport in 2012 looks nothing like Schipol Airport in the Eighties, but some things haven’t changed. The eerie way those blue KLM planes stand out on a grey runway under a grey sky is exactly the same. And I had an incredible burst of deja vu when, inexplicably, I heard Billy Ocean’s “Loverboy” blaring from a tech store on the concourse. I loved that song in 1986, when I walked through Schipol with a dubbed cassette tape of the album Suddenly on my Walkman on my way to or from West Africa. Hearing it last October was just the coincidence that cemented what always happens when I travel overseas: all those childhood memories of living and moving internationally come flooding back. There’s something thrilling about having everything you need distilled down to the contents of a backpack stowed under the seat in front of you, feeling the wheels of the plane leave the runway and knowing that you’re going around the world, leaving everything behind.
Except of course there’s those other suitcases in the hold of the plane, so you’re not really leaving it all behind. When I left West Africa for the last time I literally had all my earthly possessions in my elongated army duffel, and it felt thrilling to be so unencumbered. Quite a far cry from my situation now: a house full of stuff in Alexandria, a minivan in long-term satellite parking near O’Hare. But even if I sometimes dream of jettisoning those encumbrances — and never more than when I’m sitting on a plane about to take off — the other encumbrances are the welcome kind: two kids in the loving care of their grandparents in Michigan, and my wife Suanna next to me.
Our destination this time: India. Our traveling companions: Eric and Rebecca, Matt and Sarah. Our hosts in Delhi: Theressa and Benoy. Theressa and Suanna were roommates in college and stayed close over the years despite seeing each other only rarely.We saw them in the Philippines five years ago; even then Theressa knew she wanted to end up in India, where she had lived during high school, and where Benoy is from. She and Suanna had always dreamed of meeting there someday, and now they were finally making it happen.
I can proudly lay claim to the experience, at various times and in various places, of having “roughed it” overseas. This is not one of those times. We stayed with Theressa and Benoy at their staff quarters house on the grounds of the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi, a compound complete with playground, tennis courts, pool, and restaurant. We turned in our drivers’ licenses for purple “Unescorted Guest” passes that we’d display to the security guards at the gate whenever we came back from a day’s travels.
The High Commission, along with the American Embassy and just about all the other embassies you might think of, lie a portion of New Delhi that, if that’s all you see, is liable to leave you with a profoundly mistaken notion of the whole. In 1912, when the British decided to relocate their capital from Calcutta to Delhi, they engaged the architect Edwin Lutyens to design them a new city south of Old Delhi to call their own. He laid out an organic swath of tree-lined boulevards with wide traffic circles, and designed the Rashtrapati Bhavan, formerly the Viceroy’s House and now the residence of the President of India, with a clever fusion of British and Indian Mughal styles.
We had a couple days in Delhi before our first expedition out of the city, and so for our first full day we went to see the Qutb Minar, the tallest minaret in India, and a symbol of the Muslim domination of northern India that began in the 11th century. That story begins with Muhammad Ghori, whose forces swept in from what is now Afghanistan. When infighting shook things up back home, he declared himself an independent ruler with Delhi as his seat of power, ushering in the Mamluk dynasty, the first of five Delhi sultanates. He tore down the Hindu temples at the site, preserving the foundation of the largest one, conveniently west-facing, as the site of India’s first mosque. Our guide, a dapperly bespectacled gentleman named Professor S.K. Something-or-Other, made a big deal about the wholesale destruction of Hindu culture that occurred at the time, but there was something oddly cursory about the defacement we could still see: ancient pillars engraved with Hindu iconography, left standing for the mosque, with most of the Hindu images chipped away or otherwise defaced, but many still untouched, especially the ones higher up on the pillars.
The Minar itself is all stone, no bonding materials at all, but is so cleverly constructed that it’s endured over the centuries. The different geometries you see as it goes up and up toward the sky indicate how very long it took to build. Not far away is the base of a second tower that was supposed to be twice the width and height of the first, but that proved to be a bit too much to pull off, and only the base of it was ever constructed.
Professor S.K. took great pride in his meticulous monologues, uttered at various places on the Qutb Minar grounds, and he jealously guarded against eavesdroppers. These were usually young men who I first assumed were just local tourists curious to hear what he had to say, but I realized that they were — or at least the Professor thought they were — entrepreneurial sorts hoping to be guides themselves and trying to memorize the details of his monologues. He would shoo them away impatiently and then continue with his lecture. At first it all seemed odd to me — wasn’t this a very roundabout way of getting the knowledge you’d need to be a guide? Couldn’t you start at Wikipedia and, after a few hours of online research, come up with plenty enough factoids and stories to pass as a guide for most of the tourists who come this way? I had practically done that myself — my preparation for the trip consisted of a ton of reading, lots of it historical, wanting to have some context for the places we’d be seeing. But: I had the time and the wherewithal to do all that research, and there’s no guarantee that those eavesdroppers had either. It was anachronistic, but nevertheless kind of cool, that the words Professor S.K. were saying held, for him and his eavesdroppers, great material value that must be jealously guarded.
Unsurprisingly, those words came with a Hindu bias. It mostly came through in the way he described the years of Muslim rule the same way he did those of British rule — as a temporary foreign occupation. While that’s easier to see with the British era, there is no real way to separate out seven centuries of Islamic dynasties from the fabric of northern India. The region has become a thorough fusion of Hindu and Muslim people, cultures, and religious practices, and the real surprise, when you take the long view, is not how much violence and tension has existed between them, but the extent to which they managed to get along for generations. Even after the ill-conceived clusterf**k of Partition, India still hosts more native Muslims than any nation except Indonesia and Pakistan.
Professor S.K. took great pleasure in showing us the iron pillar of Delhi as a Hindu point of pride amidst these Muslim ruins. Pointing upright in the courtyard of the temple-turned-mosque next to the Qutb Minar, it was forged by Hindu artisans, predating the Muslim conquest, and was brought here as a trophy. It is something of a scientific curiosity because of its incredible strength and resistance to rust, which the Professor attributed to the arcane blacksmithing powers of the ancient Hindus.
Eric and I both had the same experience while we were there: the same group of young Indian guys asked to have their picture taken with us. They approached Eric first, and I just assumed he resembled some celebrity or other, but then they asked me too. In fact, over the course of the trip, I think each of the six of us were singled out for a group photo request at one time or another. It’s a bizarre experience: on the one hand gratifying, and not a little flattering, but also uncomfortable: So tall! So white! When I think about it in retrospect, though, I feel more comfortable with it. The world is full of far, far worse responses to the Other than “Whoa, cool, let me get a picture!”
Classic jet lag that night: you head to bed at 10:30 because your eyelids won’t stay up, only to spend the whole night in a state of half-sleep, wishing you had taken an Ambien or something, and hoping it’ll be enough to get you through the next day. Fortunately that only lasted a couple days. Going the other way at the end was far, far worse, but that’s a different story.
Khan Market, Jantar Mantar, Humayun’s Tomb
We had a full day in Delhi before our first Excursion, and kicked it off by heading to Khan market for a bit of shopping, and to acquire local cell phones for at least a couple of us. The cell phone is a ubiquitous tool nowadays. Large swaths of the Third World have basically skipped the whole nationwide land-line phenomenon and gone straight to mobile. America is the land of the Best Buy / Apple store / mobile store and the onerous two-year contract — but also of the pay-as-you-go burner over the counter at 7-11. When they lived in Vietnam, Matt and Sarah could score a new phone on the street in thirty seconds. India was a bit of both. Eric got a cheap phone, and Sarah got a new SIM for her android phone, from some dudes in a streetside booth at the end of a long line of mobile-touting streetside booths. But the Indian bureaucracy demanded all manner of paperwork: local and home addresses, passport photocopies, photos, the whole nine yards. It was a pain, though in retrospect it sure was nice to have local phone service. Sarah’s local plan even came with a month of free data, so we were never without Wikipedia or Google Maps if we really needed them.
I’d call Khan market upscale, except that later we went to a mall. I’d call it crowded, except later we went to Old Delhi. As a first foray into the heart of the city, though, it did provide a memorable glimpse at the stark clash between rich and poor that is impossible to escape in India. The image that sticks in my mind (but sadly, not my camera) is of a posh United Colors of Benetton store, with pictures of gorgeous models in the windows, all spotlessly clean, with a mangy, bloated dog fast asleep right on the doormat.
Next we went to Connaught Place, the business district of New Delhi, for lunch at Saravana Bhavan, part of a chain of restaurants serving reputedly awesome South Indian cuisine. It did not disappoint, and I think remained Eric’s top meal for the whole trip. Massive dosas with samosa-y filling, flavorful dal, thalis, and lassis. From there we strolled to Jantar Mintar, a collection of astronomical instruments the size of buildings designed by Jai Singh II, king of neighboring Amber (later Jaipur) during the height of the Mughal Empire. The area was walled off and clearly a favorite siesta spot for Indian office workers in the area — they had to pay only a tenth of what we did to get inside and have a look around. I had the following chain of thoughts:
- Man, it would be awesome to climb up that 70-foot-high sundial.
- It’s probably a good thing there’s that guard there yelling at anyone who tries to do stuff like that, though. This site is a historical landmark, and it’s good they’re taking care of it.
- Except, looking around, it’s clear that they haven’t been taking care of it, at least not until relatively recently …
Not for the last time in India, I had the dual experience of amazement at some piece of historical awesomeness paired with a tinge of disappointment and sadness at how run-down it looked. Not just that it was old, or that it hadn’t been “restored” in some touristy way, but that it simply didn’t look all that well cared-for. Later on in the trip, driving past an ancient-looking temple, I expressed surprise that there wasn’t a wall around it and an archaeological survey going on and a museum out front or something. Benoy explained that in India, ancient sites are a dime a dozen. When you’re swimming in history, it’s not as pressing to carefully preserve and curate any one particular thing.
Our next stop was Humayun’s Tomb, a sort of precursor building to the Taj Mahal, in that it was constructed by one of the Mughal emperors preceding Shah Jahan, and was one of the first buildings to utilize sandstone on such a grand scale. The winding path through outlier buildings toward it was a little disappointing; in the Bu Halima enclosure there were just a couple tiny patches of mosaic that hint at how truly amazing it would have looked when it was all decked out.
But when we broke through the arch to see the big tomb itself at a distance, it was indeed impressive. The background thrum of car engines and the occasional train whistle poked through the constant cackle of sparrows and parrots. The people were numerous but muted, partly out of a sense of reverence perhaps, but no doubt also sound-deadened in the hazy twilight air. All that combined with the plaintive, minor-key singing from the nearby mosque lent it all a melancholy air.
Back on the grounds of the High Commission, we opted for dinner at Club Canada rather than setting out again after a busy day. The food was mediocre but the drinks were good, and the company was superb. My eyelids were drooping at 9:00 but I forced myself to stay up a little later, and had better luck sleeping than the night before.
Up until this point, I had the sense that Delhi was not quite as … Delhi as I had expected. Sure, it was crowded, but where was the truly shocking density of people, the marked juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, the smells, the grit? I wouldn’t say I was missing it exactly, just wondering when I was going to see it, and as it turned out, the answer was: Tuesday morning at the New Delhi train station. Grit? Check. Smells? Oh yes, many and strange. Juxtaposition? Try a cluster of well-dressed young Indian professionals chatting and talking on their cell phones next to a couple of beggars sitting in the corner and a guy sleeping peacefully atop a pile of sacks of grain or something that he will apparently be shepherding somewhere via rail, somehow.
The day before, dengue fever had been in the news — apparently there was something of an outbreak locally — so we were just a little bit paranoid about catching something, which is not really the thing you want to be worrying about in the confines of the New Delhi train station. I felt very Western and silly. Especially since, when it came right down to it, we hopped on our train without any incident (with our conveniently printed e-tickets, no less) and made our way to our comfortable assigned seats in the nicest car that train had to offer, while up or down the platform there were, no doubt, many more people cramming themselves in like sardines for the four-and-a-half hour ride upcountry to Haridwar.
It’s not rational to feel at any greater remove from home at one place or another in India — either way you’re on the other side of the world. But I felt my first pang of homesickness — or at least a sudden desire for my own cozy hobbit-hole — as the train pulled away and started inching out of Delhi. Airplanes seem magical — the distance they take you doesn’t seem real. But with the slow steady crawl of the train farther and farther away, you feel every step. It took over an hour to get clear of Delhi’s sprawl. Most of it alternated industrial zones and shanty towns — it started to sink in the extent to which the embassy compounds of Lutyen’s Delhi and the office towers of Connaught Place really were islands.
Another juxtaposition: Riding past an area I could only describe as hovels — bare, dirty concrete slab buildings, dirt roads — I saw a young man with perfect hair and earbud headphones, striding purposefully, who would not look out of place as a college student anywhere in the U.S.
At the end of our car was a group of a dozen or so French tourists, merrily conversing. At one point one of them busted out a guitar and led a rollicking singalong of assorted folksy songs in French, including their rendition of “Country Roads.” As they went on they got more and more raucous, to the annoyance of some of the locals seated near them, and I felt vaguely embarrassed because of them, as fellow Westerners, I guess. But then I savored the moment: how often do you get to be the American guy embarrassed by the behavior of the French?
Haridwar station was every bit as smelly and chaotic as Delhi, if not more so. We found the driver of the taxi we had prearranged — or rather, he found us — and as we were waiting on the platform for some folks to use the restroom — brave! — the bottom fell out of my stomach as I realized that I had left my iPad on the train, in the seat pocket in front of me.The train had not yet left the station so I rushed back aboard and, fortune of fortunes, it was still there. It is possible that I have never moved that fast ever before in my life.
Without further ado, we loaded up in the taxi van and started crawling down crowded roads toward Rishikesh. What is Rishikesh, you ask, and why there? Blame the Beatles.
Paul and John and the rest, you will recall, got interested in Transcendental Meditation via the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He got a reputation as “the Beatles’ guru” while visiting Britain, and they decided to visit his ashram outside Rishikesh to get the full-on experience. What followed were several weeks in early ’68 when most of The White Album and a couple songs from Abbey Road were written. The list of people who were there is pretty amazing: the Fab Four, of course, and their assorted girlfriends and spouses, as well as Donovan, Mia Farrow, her sister Prudence (yes, that Prudence), Lewis Lapham(!), and many more. I don’t suspect there was anything magical about the place other than the general benefit of “getting away from it all” — by most accounts, the Maharishi was mainly interested in getting the band to “tithe” a hefty chunk of their next album’s profits to the ashram, and apparently his celibacy didn’t prevent him from making a pass at Mia. But they still got an awful lot done in a short time there, and forever left their mark on Rishikesh as “that place the Beatles went to.”
Before that, Rishikesh was already a holy city, positioned right where the sacred river Ganges emerges from the Himalayas. Vegetarianism in the area is decreed by law, and alcohol is banned. It was always a noted site for Hindu ashrams and yoga practitioners, but after the Beatles’ visit it became a of particular interest to Western visitors, and a thriving tourist district sprang up chock full of yoga studios, discount hotels, and outdoor trekking companies. We knew going in that the Maharishi’s famous ashram was no more, but wanted to take a trip out toward the mountains and make sure some good outdoors-y time was part of our India experience.
I had increasing levels of concern as we made our way out of Haridwar — no sign of mountains anywhere, and the roads were very crowded, and other than a rather impressive statue of Shiva on the outskirts, there was nothing particularly scenic. Our approach to Rishikesh didn’t provide much in the way of vistas either, and even if it had, the air was a bit hazy. After some switchback turns the taxi pulled up to a patch of dirt at the side of the road, and we unloaded our stuff and met the proprietor of Rainforest House, our base of operations while in Rishikesh, which we reached at the end of a hundred yard downhill scramble on the heels of his three-year-old son. The hotel was a simple, but nice, with a handful of rooms and a yoga studio on an upper floor. The air was filled with the sound of flowing water, and indeed, we were not far from a rivulet coming down in a little waterfall and then flowing into the Ganges, just a short walk away. Standing on its banks you could look left and see that you were, in fact, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and that the air was clear and the water was deep, and it was awesome.
Rainforest House was very, very yoga-y: super peaceful, super vegetarian. Even the concierge/waiter/manager of the place had a certain serenity about him. The food was very basic but not bad. There was a hammock and any number of little meditation nooks, a yoga studio upstairs … definitely a place to get away from the world. But the world never makes that easy, and as a rather humorous reminder of that, right there on the dining balcony there was a bowl full of small stones and a slingshot, in case you needed to keep away the monkeys.
After lunch we clambered up the path back to the road in order to stroll into town and see what we could see. Actually, “stroll” isn’t quite the right word, since it ended up being over two miles away — a winding road, never dull, what with the careening cars, oxen, packs of dogs, and monkeys. When we approached the first pack of monkeys I — totally unconsciously — scooped up a rock to hold in my hand, just in case. Leftover instinct from West Africa, I guess. We had a little trouble finding our way from the “regular” town drag down to the riverside and the main “tourist” drag, but when we found it there was no mistaking it. Restaurants, jewelry stores, yoga studios, cloth sellers, booth upon booth of tchotchkes, and more establishments advertising “outdoor adventure” than you could shake a stick at.
In the middle of it all was the Lakshman Jhula, a pedestrian suspension bridge crossing the river at the point where Lakshmana, the dutiful brother to Rama, hero of the Ramayana, crossed the sacred river on a rope bridge. The Ramayana is, of course, legend, but unlike in young America, where anything old enough to be considered legend almost by definition occurred someplace else, in India the history stretches back so far that all the legends occur in the same places that the history does, and the places, as well as the stories, are all still around. Before coming to India I read some rather hyperbolic descriptions of the beauty and serenity of the Lakshman Jhula. Certainly the view from there at twilight, when we arrived, was very nice, with the lights of the town coming on and the Ganges winding its way up into the mountains. But any serenity to be had was undoubtedly marred by the constant stream of motorbikes fighting for right of way on this impossibly narrow footbridge, honking their horns loudly as if the crowds of people were an affront.
Quick sidenote: That’s not really true; that’s just how it was to my ears. In most places in the U.S. the use of the horn on your vehicle has been scaled back to the province of 1) emergencies and 2) assholes, and I think that’s a positive thing — certainly one that I’ve acclimated to. But in most places in the world (and even plenty in the U.S., I’m sure) the horn remains a basic instrument of communication, and the arcane rules of communication which can distinguish a “I’m in this space and I’m not leaving it so watch the hell out” honk and a “I see you there trying to move over so go ahead, I got your back” honk are peculiar to each time and place and not easily mastered by a novice. So anyway, to my rarefied sensibilities, the bridge was somewhat spoiled by assholes on mopeds, but I’m sure to most of the people around me, it was business as usual.
Rishikesh near the Lakshman Jhula was a great place to go shopping, which, of all the people in our company, I am the one least qualified to tell you about. So I will simply say that some of that occurred, though nothing got bought, which was later regretted because we didn’t get back there again. For dinner we hoped to find a little place called 60’s, which — lest you think we were off the grid or anything — I had looked up on my iPad using the wifi back at Rainforest House. It was a good thing we had a couple local cell phones we could use to call it, though, because it was tucked away on a narrow shop road on a steep hillside that we would not have found on our own in a million years. The music was all Beatles and Doors and other 60’s stuff, and the place definitely had a backpacker-y vibe, though there were more iPhones than backpacks visible there that evening. The vegetable jhalfrezi was very fine, as was kicking back at that low table with the mountain breeze (the place was open air) with the night lights and the river below, enjoying fine conversation with excellent friends.
Leaving the restaurant, the town was suddenly quiet, as if there had been an unspoken curfew. We misunderstood the taxi driver and balked at what he was asking to cart us back to our hotel in his autorickshaw, though, as we realized the next night, the rickshaws aren’t even allowed to leave Rishikesh proper, and a non-rickshaw taxi was not to be found. So we hoofed it, wary of the odd truck or car that would hurtle by every few minutes at speeds that, given the tight curves and precipices and utter lack of adequate guardrails, seemed insane, at least to us. We passed a pack of dogs, a couple of which were fighting — they were city dogs to be sure, but they were wild, so there was a tiny bit of concern as they started following us out of town down the road. As we walked on it became clear that they weren’t at hostile, and further on still it seemed less that they were bored and following us for the heck of it, and more that they had appointed themselves our official protectors walking down a narrow road with huge drop-offs in the middle of the night. They’d chase after every car that went by, literally snapping their bumpers between their teeth and almost getting run over in the process.
Whitewater Rafting, Ganga Aarti
I can’t speak for my traveling companions, but for me, the real draw for the Rishikesh excursion was these five words: whitewater rafting on the Ganges. You’ll see that mentioned as a signature activity on any travel site, and Serene Concierge Dude at Rainforest was totally unsurprised when, shortly after arrival, we asked him to make arrangements for us to go rafting the next day.
And so, the morning of day four, we loaded into a bus that picked us up on the edge of the road, the six of us joining five other tourists on a drive further up into the hills along even more unreliable roads at even faster speeds. I was sitting towards the back and the tire under me would grind against the wheel well every time the bus took a sharp turn — which was most of the turns.
I had never been whitewater rafting before, but I imagine the setup was typical: two rafts, with a guide on each plus a couple other guides on kayaks, the six of us in one raft and four other people in our group in the other. Helmets, lifejackets, paddles. A little tutorial at the beginning about digging your feet in and understanding the guide’s commands. I had assumed that this would be a guppy-level adventure, so to speak, but it turns out these would be Class III rapids, which are, according to wikipedia: “Whitewater, small waves, maybe a small drop, but no considerable danger. May require significant maneuvering. (Skill level: experienced paddling skills).” The guide on our raft, Vir, cheerfully told us that there was a fifty-fifty chance that we’d flip over at some point. (Yes, I did think it was neat that he was named Vir just like the Centauri aide de camp from Babylon 5. No, I did not ask him if he had ever seen Babylon 5.)
We didn’t flip, but there were a couple times when it was close. And the experience was every bit as thrilling as I hoped, in all the ways I hoped it would be. The rafting itself was a cool rush, moments of furious activity followed by more leisurely stretches just letting the river carry us along. And the river itself was beautiful — not very wide at this point, but deep, the water cool and its flow fast and inexorable. We were upriver of anything that would qualify even as a town, so the water quality was pristine. Hills rose steeply on either side, sometimes sloping more gently to make room for a tiny village or a site for riverside camping, sometimes sloping more steeply into cliff faces. And crumbling ruins of old temples and examples of ancient earthenworks were scattered everywhere like they’re an afterthought.
The actual rapids were a ton of fun, going along with Vir’s “left!” or “right!” or “stop!” in order to keep us on course. Vir had that guide’s knowledge that seemed preternatural — knowing the river’s current and giving us what seemed like counterintuitive instructions that in fact brought us through the crazy parts in one piece. There was one German tourist who was along but trying to take it all on in a kayak — he managed to flip over on every single stretch of rapids, which slowed down our progress considerably as we waited for him to drain his kayak each time, but I didn’t mind, because everything was so beautiful.
My favorite parts, though, were the lighter rapids where Vir told us that we could, if we wanted, jump out of the raft and bodysurf them. I took advantage of that every time I could, letting myself drift far from the raft, feet pointed downstream, feeling the current around me, one with the river’s heart.
Sadly, we have no pictures of that excursion. Everyone else prudently put their cameras and other gear in the uber-waterproof bag that the guides had along. But I had borrowed a waterproof case for my iPhone from Matt and Sarah, hoping to snap some shots while on the river. And I did take the camera out once and take a few, but then had to put it away again in order to paddle furiously, and after that was too addicted to the whitewater bodysurfing to think much about taking pictures. An hour later when I did pop the case open again to access my phone, the interior was completely drenched. I don’t know whether it was a faulty case or I just didn’t seal it correctly, though I suspect the latter. Whatever the case, I did all the usual wet-phone-trauma-recovery stuff you’re supposed to do over the next week, but all to no avail — it was totally and utterly kaput.
Back home I ended up composing a poem for my dead iPhone (not something I normally do — it was for a birthday party where everybody had to bring a work of art). The best thing that can be said about it is that it is an elegy that actually does follow the form of classical elegiac couplets, with a (hopefully) humorous twist. In any case, here it is:
Elegy for an iPhone
Queen of all rivers, divine Mother Ganga, forgive me my trespasses
Upon your clear waters beneath the high mountains we raced
To enslave the mere moment, freeze it in time, and link to the world
I brought my iPhone enmeshed in a waterproof case.
Wrung as you were from the hair of the blue-skinned one, Shiva Trimurti
Your whitewater rapids embraced us, a transforming ride —
I leapt from the raft to be one with the chill and the speed of your current
And your water embraced the case, finding its own way inside
Dead now, my phone should be yours to release from the trap of samsara
Its moksha your right as the river releasing the dead
But I cannot part from its spirit — my counterpart, yea, my vahana
And so it’s been reincarnated by iCloud instead.
I meant to have a stanza or two about Steve Jobs but couldn’t quite make them work. If nothing else, I’ll have the “how I lost my smartphone” story to trump all others.
Late that afternoon, Suanna, Eric, Rebecca and I decided to head back into town. Serene Concierge Dude had told us about about the Ganga Aarti, a Hindu religious ceremony performed at an ashram alongside the river on certain days at twilight. So we walked the long walk again, even farther than the last time in order to cross the river at Ram Jhula, another foot/moped bridge across the Ganges.
But before I continue with our story, I would be remiss if I did not mention how one of our group almost got devoured by monkeys. Though Matt and Sarah stayed at the hotel, Matt did walk with us for the first stretch in order to acquire some Diet Coke at one of the market stalls on the edge of town. As he was strolling back alone with his four-pack of shiny silver containers, he came across a pack of a couple dozen monkeys, alongside the road and on the road such that there wasn’t an easy way to get around them. He proceeded forward, hoping they would disperse, but on the contrary, they started to crowd around him. It became clear they were Up to Something, but whether he was going to get mauled or just lose his Diet Coke he will never know, because at that point he heard a “tsssk, tsssk!” sound from behind him on the road, and the monkeys immediately scattered. The source: an old Indian woman, waving a stick, who continued wordlessly on her way.
Meanwhile … the site of the aarti was an amphitheater facing a magnificent statue of Shiva built on a platform out in the river, with walkways connecting the platform to the shore. We got there at what we thought was on time, but in fact turned out to be super duper early — not for the last time in India! Quiet, barefoot, we sat cross-legged and listened to the orange-robed members of the ashram chanting. Others in white robes sat around a fire pit at the center of the amphitheater and took turns tossing offerings of some sort into the fire. This went on for over an hour, at which point the sun set and a couple hundred more people arrived for what was clearly the heart of the affair. The chanting crescendoed, and as it reached its apex, little miniature braziers were lit and passed around among everyone in the crowd, with each person who wanted to taking one and waving it around in a specific pattern. At the same time people could lower a lotus flower (they were for sale outside the ashram earlier) into the river and let it float downstream amid the flickering lights.
It was all very beautiful, though I must say that the whole time I was always in a state of observing the moment, instead being in the moment, which I would have preferred. I had a ton of questions about what I was seeing, and especially about the various statues and artwork nearby, and thankfully we ran into the folks from the other raft that we had just met that morning. Four of them had banded together after the expedition and were taking in the aarti together. Aashka and her husband Jacob were on vacation from Gujarat — here as elsewhere, we saw more Indian tourists visiting other places in their own country than we saw Western tourists. Sam (from England) and Sonia (from France) were both traveling on their own. Aashka, as it turned out, came from a Brahmin family, and had the delightful combination of 1) full knowledge of Hindu stories and history and 2) an eagerness to share them. She rolled her eyes at the improper technique of all the tourists weaving those little braziers through the air during the aarti, and when, after the ceremony, I asked her what was up with the remarkable statue of Hanuman near the entrance gate, she launched into an explanation that carried our whole group back down the road all the way to Ram Jhula.
Hanuman, you will recall, is the monkey god of the Ramayana, part trickster, part loyal sidekick, and in many ways the real hero of the story, insofar as he gets all the cool scenes doing amazing things, like picking up a mountain and growing four heads so he can blow out five lanterns simultaneously. When all is said and done and Rama has rescued Sita from the clutches of Ravana, with Hanuman’s help, he wants to reward his friend richly, but Hanuman insists that he already has his reward because Rama and Sita are reunited, just as they have always been together in his heart. Someone challenges him on this point, and in response he tears open his chest with his claws and reveals a miniature Rama and a miniature Sita right there in his heart.
I wish I had a better picture of the statue when lit at night, where Hanuman is big and blue and the couple sitting there in his chest cavity are lit somewhat garishly. At any rate, by the time we had reached the bridge Aashka had said “Wait, I need to finish my story” at least three times, and she was on to answering one of Eric’s questions about the origins of Ganesh, and we were about to part ways to go get dinner when we realized that we really could all just go get dinner together. We went to Chotiwala, a venerable Rishikesh institution that Aashka remembered visiting as a child.
There is something pure and wonderful about the conversation that ensues from these kinds of meetings. People from different nations and cultures have little enough in common that even very basic topics are infused with new interest. All four of them could not quite understand why anyone in America would not vote for Obama, so we found ourselves trying to explain American politics in that basic way that recovers its essence. And after all my reading I had been dying to ask someone from India what they thought, now in retrospect, about Partition and whether they could do things differently if they went back — and here I could just come out and ask. Everyone was fairly comfortable in English but not so comfortable that anyone could be anything other than simple and direct. We talked about Obama and Romney and India and Pakistan and China and more cool Hindu stories and what we all did, and it was lovely. And at the end, of course, despite all our differences, it turns out we were all on Facebook (except Eric), so we exchanged email addresses and now we’re all “friends” in the technical sense, which in this particular case is actually an amazing and cool thing, because otherwise, realistically speaking, we’d remember them fondly but never have contact with them again, whereas now we can always be sort-of-in-touch in that lightly-connected social networking way.
We had a good long walk home in the dark, and had cause to be very thankful for smartphone flashlight apps.
Mother Temple Hike
The next morning we woke up before 5 am. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I mused that waking up earlier than normal in a place that serves neither meat nor alcohol was not exactly my Platonic ideal of “vacation.” But we had a plan, and that plan was to take a car all the way up to the top of the highest hill outside of Rishikesh, and to get there early enough that we could watch the sun rise. And, of course, it was worth it.
After an hour ride and then a further ascent up a few hundred stairs, we found ourselves at the Mother Temple. While the buildings themselves were very simple and only a few decades old, when I asked Bharat, our guide, how long there had been a temple on this site, he said that the first one was founded by the Pandava brothers. The Pandavas feature prominently in the Mahabharata, the other great Indian epic besides the Ramayana. They are in the realm of myth, but given the history of that text, what Bharat was telling me was basically that there had been a temple here for at least a couple thousand years.
As the sun inched toward showing its face, we could see the forest-covered hills around us, reminding me a lot of Appalachia actually, and a corner of Rishikesh far below, and the silhouettes of mountains in the distance. It was still cold, so the dude there selling chai was most welcome. It was spicy and warm, probably not that much different from other chai I’ve had, but in that crisp, windy pre-dawn, waiting for world to wake up, it was the best chai I ever had and probably ever will.
The sun finally peeked over one of the distant mountaintops, throwing the world into new light, and it became easier to see that those distant peaks really were the snow-capped Himalayas. Then we began the second phase of this particular expedition: a four-hour trek back down the hillside into town.
Not far in, it was hard to imagine that I had been shivering and wishing I’d brought a jacket just a few minutes earlier. This was not a leisurely stroll down well-marked paths, but a steep hike with frequent doses of “clamber,” lots of loose gravel and winding turns and things which may-or-may-not-be-paths. We would have been hopelessly lost without Bharat, though this was definitely slumming it for him — he was a guide accustomed to going on multi-week mountaineering expeditions who just happened to be between gigs at the moment.
The hike alternated between lovely views of the surrounding hillsides and more overgrown areas where we struggled to keep our feet. We skirted by villages where Bharat insisted on scouting ahead to make sure we weren’t accosted by territorial dogs. The best part by far was when we came across a series of terrace farms and cut a long way down the hillside by following the concrete irrigation channel that ran alongside them. Suanna took my picture near there — you can see some of the terraces in the background — and when she showed it to me commented that I have this look like I was right where I wanted to be, which seemed about right.
Near the bottom we stopped at a waterfall for a break and some of us waded in to the pool at the bottom. A small snake slithered out from between a couple rocks and started heading toward us. Bharat cried out in alarm and urged us to get away. I’m still not sure whether the snake was in fact poisonous or whether Bharat simply had a blanket kill-on-sight rule for snakes encountered in the wild, but he threw rocks at it until it was gone.
We had time to shower and lunch and relax a bit back at Rainforest House, but then it was time to get back to Haridwar again in time for the evening train. The trip coming-back is never as fun or interesting as the the going-there trip, but we did meet an older Indian couple on the train who proved delightful — he had gone to grad school in Alaska in his youth, and was well-traveled; they both spoke with that hint-of-British upper-crust accent, and we traded notes on America here and there, then and now. They were from New Delhi, and offered up their hospitality if ever we should need it, which almost made me wish we didn’t already have a ridiculous amount of hospitality in Delhi, so we could take them up on their offer.
Back at the High Commission. Some of the others made it out to explore a local market, but for me it was a down-day at the compound. I exercised, I read, I napped, I got a couple games of Puerto Rico in with Matt. Insofar as I had a goal for the day, it was to finally get into Neesha’s good graces.
Dev and Neesha are Theressa and Benoy’s two lovely children. Dev was seven, Neesha three, and while Dev remembered me a little from our last meeting back in the States, Neesha was pretty sure I was up to no good right from the get-go. She didn’t warm up to me, even though I got along fine with her brother, who would affectionately refer to me, in Indian fashion, as “Nate-uncle.” Neesha, I should also note, takes “cute” to a whole new level, and it was my ambition to have her call me “Nate-uncle” before the end of the trip. It took a fair bit of patient charm, and the willingness to do a puzzle or three, but eventually she decided that I was, in fact, acceptable company, and even allowed Matt and me to take her to the pool without either of her parents.
After a little swimming and a little ping-pong, we set out with our hosts to walk half a mile or so to the American embassy: their restaurant was reportedly a good one, and at least some of us, including me, were ready to cut loose a bit after our time in Rishikesh. Security there was such that we wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the embassy just because we were Americans. Theressa could get in as a Canadian diplomat, with her family, but she could only sign in four guests, so she actually had to find someone she knew on the inside to vouch for two more of us so we could all enter together. As if sensing our decadent ambitions, the restaurant was having “Long Island Iced Tea” happy hour when we arrived. In my notes, I indicate that the bacon cheeseburger I had was my second-most spiritual experience on the trip thus far, right after bodysurfing the Ganges. That’s not quite true in retrospect — it may have been the alcohol talking — but those were indeed fine drinks, and a fine burger.
Up next for us was the Golden Triangle in four days and three nights: from Delhi down to Agra, then over to Jaipur, and back again. It was one of those package deals, where an agency set us up with hotels, guides, and a car and driver for the whole time. For the first leg, down to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, we were accompanied by Theressa and her family in their own car. Getting to Agra was a lot easier than it would have been even a few years ago: a new highway had been built, part of a public-private partnership, complete with turnpike-esque rest areas. The only surreal thing was the process of getting on it. After taking a lesser highway to the outskirts of Delhi, we had to hop off, drive through a gritty industrial neighborhood for a bit in order to find a tucked-away travel permitting office of some sort. Our laconic and hypercompetent driver, Balraj, bribed somebody somehow to jump past the long line of people waiting to have their particular bureaucratic hurdle cleared, and came back with a piece of paper that, as he explained, gave him permission to take a “tourist vehicle” into the state of Uttar Pradesh. Then we had to snake back to the little highway that finally gave way to the new road, at which point it was just another highway ride, albeit with some more interesting scenery outside. We passed the time using our assorted iDevices to play Carcassonne via Bluetooth.
Agra the city was, sad to say, disappointing. It was crowded and dirty, traffic jams everywhere, with no sense that the amazing historical sites to be found there had somehow infused the larger community with any sort of distinctive character. We stopped off first to drop our bags at our hotel, which was set apart completely from the surrounding chaos by a high wall and guarded gate. The Grand Imperial was an old and dignified hotel, dating from the height of the Raj — the rooms were small but full of genuine antique furniture. There was a nice green lawn near the front for taking one’s tea, and they advertised a classical dance performance by the pool in the evening, though we didn’t end up availing ourselves of either.
We opted for lunch before our first historical stop, and this is where our guide, Faizal, first failed us. For the most part throughout the trip I was That Guy who, when it came to places to eat, triangulated between TripAdvisor, the Lonely Planet hardcopy in my bag, and whatever other research I had time to do in order to find the perfect place. So far that had served us pretty well, but for whatever reason we let Faizal pick a place for us — an amateur mistake, for of course he directed us straight to a tourist trap. It wasn’t bad — the food was decent — but it was all tourism theater, cloth napkins and dressed-up waiters, and more to the point, it was way, way overpriced.
Next, Balraj navigated us to our first stop, and not for the last time we realized we’d have been totally lost without him. The “parking” “lot” for the Agra Fort was a swath of flat dirt that to my eyes was already completely full of cars packed like … well, not sardines, because that would imply something in the way in the way of orderly rows. Yet he somehow found a place to shoehorn our car in. Strolling to the gate, we were immediately surrounded by touts trying to sell us tchotchkes. Probably the best thing about having Faizal there as a guide was that we were not also set upon by additional crowds of people offering to be our guides.
And here I must confess to another failing in the seasoned-traveler department. One guy keeping pace and trying to foist goods upon us had little backgammon and chess boards. So I stopped for a second to look at the backgammon one, in spite of myself. It took me all of a second to realize that there was nothing special about it — more or less the same as other ones I’d seen sold on other streets elsewhere in the Third World. But a man can’t really have enough backgammon boards, in my estimation, and I figured it’d be worth a couple bucks, and it was small enough to bring along without much trouble. So I Initiated Bargaining. 100 rupees — about $2 — was my endpoint. But when I asked his price, he started at 1200 rupees. My completely genuine response — to laugh the the ridiculous price — could have easily been mistaken as the opening salvo in a negotiation, which is exactly how he took it. But I knew from that point that there was far too much distance between us to really get anywhere. So I went into full-on refusal mode, and he came down to 500 between the parking lot and the gate. On the way back out a couple hours later he found me and kept at it, even when I had escalated (or de-escalated) from Verbal Refusal to simple Ignoring, but all the while I think he thought we were still negotiating. He was down all the way to 200 by the time we got back to the car — if I had been negotiating I’d be doing really well! — and I literally had to shove his arm out the way in order to close the car door. For someone who has negotiated more or less ably for everything from souvenir swords in Bangkok to taxi rides across Monrovia, it was downright embarrassing.
Anyway, that first stop was at the Agra Fort, center stage for much of the drama surrounding the height of the Mughal Empire. We had seen the Qutb Minar, which marked the beginning of Muslim rule of northern India, and had had a little glimpse of Mughal architecture at Humayan’s Tomb. Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar was Humayan’s son, the third ruler of the Mughal dynasty, and the one who erected the fort in its current form, out of red sandstone from Rajasthan. It had been the site of one fort or another for a long time — his father had held it and lost it, but when Akbar recaptured it himself he decided to move his capital to Agra and turn it into something more on the order of a walled city.
Akbar’s story gets a lot more interesting when he briefly moved his capital once again, but more on that later. It was his grandson, Shah Jahan, who further developed the fort and built structures in his favored material, white marble. He is best known, of course, for ordering the construction of the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his late wife. He was a noted patron of the arts and, like his grandfather, was (relatively speaking, anyway) tolerant of religions and cultures other than Islam, which encouraged a society that was, by the standards of the day, fairly cosmopolitan. In his aging years, he had a favored son, Dara, which incurred the jealousy of his other sons, especially the dangerous one, Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb was the black sheep of the family, the one they kept away from court life by always sending him out to govern distant provinces or to quell one rebellion or another. Consequently, of course, he was an able military commander, which didn’t help Jahan any when Aurangzeb rose up in outright rebellion and overthrew his dad.
Which leads us to the iconic image of the Agra Fort — Shah Jahan, old, overthrown, and a prisoner in his own home, cared for by his daughter, and still afforded the luxury of his quarters and a pleasant view of his beloved Taj Mahal downriver. He was even buried there beside her after he died. Aurangzeb was gracious in those respects, but otherwise he marked the beginning of the end: though he expanded Mughal borders to their greatest extent during his reign, he was a strict Islamic fundamentalist, and eschewed the liberal religious viewpoints of his father and great-grandfather. The golden age of the Mughals as a center of arts and culture were over, and after Aurangzeb died, the dynasty was in steady decline until the full takeover of the British Raj.
We actually only got to see a small part of the Agra Fort — the famous corner of it set aside for tourists, including the Diwan-i-Am, or Hall of Public Audience, and Shah Jahan’s old quarters. The lion’s share of it actually still functions as a real base for the Indian military. It was an amazing structure with a fascinating history, but, as with some of the sights in Delhi, its level of current disrepair was a little disappointing. Here and there you could see remnants of paint or etchings that hint on how an entire wall may have been decorated, or see all the recessed areas in the marble or sandstone that were at one point filled with precious and semiprecious stones. To be sure, most of this stuff was lost long ago, when the Marathas ran the Mughals out of this area in the 18th century, but I also got the sense that recent efforts at conservation and restoration have been desultory at best.
Expected: Faizal wanting to stop at a “handicraft store” en route to the Taj. Annoying: Faizal not taking “no” for an answer right away, even though we obviously didn’t have time to shop and to properly see the Taj before sunset.
And then there’s the Taj. Shah Jahan conceived of it and its environs as a manifestation in this world of the afterlife for his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It is a Wonder of the World for good reason. Sure, it’s gigantic, and positioned right on a rise by the shores of the Yamuna so that it dominates the skyline from all directions, and looks especially good as you approach it along the gardens to its south. The four minarets at its corners are designed to fall outward, not inward, so as to preserve the central structure. Their symmetry, and the symmetry of the entire building, are perfect. The main structure sits on sixty-eight water wells made of ebony — another design element to preserve the place in case of earthquake.
And all the precious stonework, the inlay, the decorations? Whereas in all these other places we had seen, you have to imagine what it would have looked like back in the day, with the Taj it’s all still there. The list of materials found there reads like a crib sheet for the Jewelcrafting profession in World of Warcraft: jasper, jade, agate, turquoise, lapis lazuli, onyx, catseye, bloodstone, goldstone, and many more. Here at last we could see what it looks like to have all that stuff inlaid into your white marble and sandstone. The whole thing is incredibly imposing from a distance, but as you get closer and closer you realize how much detail is engraved into every square foot of it as well. The interior walk so was so crowded as to be cacophonic, and a little dark, but still impressive for all that.
We caught the Taj at sunset, which was a good time to see it, but as the light began to dwindle in earnest, it became clear that soon there would be nothing much to see — the building is not lit. I’m not surprised that there weren’t lights wired on to the building itself, but no spotlights illuminating it from the surrounding gardens? For a wonder of the world?
Dinner with Theressa and Benoy at their hotel, just a short walk from the Taj. Then back at the Grand Imperial, hanging out in pajamas in one of the rooms, lounging on the antique furniture … eyes starting to droop in the middle of conversation. Early bedtimes all ‘round.
Fatehpur Sikri & Jaipur
Balraj navigated us slowly but surely out of the thorny traffic jams of Agra and west toward Jaipur. We had one stop along the way, at what proved to be my favorite historical site of the trip: Fatehpur Sikri.
The Emperor Akbar, Shah Jahan’s grandfather, after he had built up the Agra Fort, was sitting pretty: he had vanquished assorted enemies in battle, consolidated his power, and presided over a vast, wealthy, and enlightened empire. He had three wives: one Muslim, one Hindu, one Christian. But he still had no sons. He went to Sikri, the home of the Sufi mystic Salim Chisti, and, as the story goes, when he prayed there with Chisti, the sufi foretold the birth of a son from his Hindu wife, which in due time did in fact happen. Akbar constructed a Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, at that place in Chisti’s honor, and later built up a new capital for himself at that very place, called Fatehpur Sikri. In the long run this proved to be a poor idea — it was not a great strategic site and had poor access to water. And so he moved the capital to Lahore when he had to contend with uprisings in the northwest, and back to Agra again before he died.
But as a result of all this Fatehpur Sikri remained somewhat off the beaten path and, though whatever gemstones may have decorated the walls are of course long since gone, and if fundamentalists of Aurangzeb’s ilk had dutifully defaced some of the more … ecumenical decorations in the palaces there, it still remains in relatively good repair, with lots of beautiful examples of Mughal architecture rendered in red sandstone.
Faizal subcontracted with another guide to cover us on this leg of the trip, and once again, though his contributions as a guide per se were modest, getting us past the sea of prospective guides who would otherwise have hounded every step of our way was probably worth it. We stopped at the Jama Masjid first, taking off our shoes at the entrance, and admiring the imposing walls, the assortment of tombs, and the stairs leading down to a door that purportedly covers a secret underground passage leading all the way back to the Agra Fort. The highlight of the mosque, though, was the tomb of Salim Chisti built on the central courtyard. It’s made of white marble, with incredibly detailed screens carved into each side, filtering in the light. You can buy threads from devotees outside and tie them to a marble screen in the interior while offering a prayer or a wish for the saint to convey up to God.
While she was taking pictures, Suanna was approached by a weathered-looking fellow who resembled Qaddafi (from his craggy days, not his pudgy days). He asked about the diffuser on her camera, and claimed he was a photographer. I say “claimed” because my guard went instantly up, as I assumed that whatever overture he was making was a first step in selling her something at best and attempting to scam her at worst. But happily, as it turned out, he was the real deal — a photographer who hadn’t seen the type of diffuser she was using before, and was just curious. She had gotten some of the settings screwed up on her Canon and had been using it only in easy mode as a result — he helped her sort that out. Then he shared with her some of the pictures from his own portfolio, which were indeed impressive. Suanna asked if any of them were for sale. “No ma’am,” he replied, not quite affronted, but a little surprised. “I do not sell my photos. I am an artist.”
We had to pay to get onto the actual palace grounds of Fatehpur Sikri, and as a result our subcontracted guide subsubcontracted us to his brother who was already on the inside. That guy, Bobby, was actually our favorite guide from the whole trip: laid-back, congenial, sharp, and full of information that I didn’t already know.
Akbar built three separate palaces for each of his three wives. His Hindu wife got the biggest one, since she had given him his first son, who would later become the Emperor Jahangir, Shah Jahan’s father. While I was taking a moment in there to type some notes on my iPad, a group of schoolboys came by — one of them had a camera and asked to take my picture, and then to have my picture taken with him and some of his select friends from the throng. Then I offered to take their picture with my iPad, which they were very impressed with, and as they mugged for the camera they started drifting from “classmates” to an “excited mob” that had to be reigned in by the teachers who hovered nearby. I laughed to myself at how identical the whole dynamic was to some of the class field trips I’ve chaperoned myself in recent years.
The Christian wife’s palace was smaller, decorated with European-style frescoes, now of course long-since faded, with only the tiniest fragments visible. The Muslim wife’s palace was smallest but also the most richly decorated, full to the brim with precious inlay and gemstones —all long-since looted, of course. Other things of note: the Pigeonry, where messenger pigeons got to live. Unlike the ravens of the Citadel in Oldtown, though, their digs were carved out of the sandstone walls, instead of in cages. My favorite part was the life-size pachisi board where Akbar could enjoy a nice game using slaves or members of his harem as living pieces.
Akbar also had a pet elephant named Hiran that served as his chief executioner by trampling people to death in a nice little framed area below the royal balcony. A helpful reminder that while Akbar’s open-mindedness and enlightenment stand up well relative to his time, he was probably not a super duper leader by our standards.
We had lunch at the Goverdham Hotel in Sikri, and then set out west on the four-hour drive west out of Uttar Pradesh and into fabled Rajasthan, to the city of Jaipur. This entailed a definite shift in climate and environs — while we had by no means made to to the desert per se, we were clearly on the way, and started seeing camels by the side of the road everywhere. Sort of a Breaking Bad-style New Mexico, except hilly and full of rocky outcroppings.
The Rajput rulers of this region have always had a strong independent streak. When the Muslims first rolled over north India, they resisted. Only centuries later did they eventually join Team Mughal, and even then it was by alliance and not by being on the losing end of a conquest. They pulled the same trick with the British Raj, bending the proverbial knee in exchange for retaining their royal titles and good degree of autonomy. Indeed, there ceased to be kings in Rajasthan only with an independent India, and even then not right away.
The Diggi family traces their lineage back to those early Mughal days, rubbing shoulders with Akbar, and joining the maharaja Jai Singh II when he founded the city of Jaipur near his existing palace at Amber in the 18th century. The Diggis got themselves a nice haveli with beautiful garden grounds there in Jaipur, and held onto it for a few hundred years. In the 1980s a British friend of the family wanted to start a hot air balloon tourism business, using their central courtyard as a take-off point. The balloon never got off the ground — literally — but in the process of hosting the folks who had come to witness the launch, the Diggis decided to do with their property what dozens of now-former royal families had done since Independence — turn it into a luxury hotel.
We rolled into the Hotel Diggi Palace after sunset, and in one of those inexplicable coincidences, saw some Europeans on that central lawn drinking beer and playing Kubb, a Swedish lawn game that has long been a staple of our July 4 vacations at the Cabins in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, thanks to Eric and Rebecca. By the time we got checked in and settled, though, the Kubb players were gone, and we were hungry besides, so while I would have loved to add “playing Kubb in Jaipur” to my list of utterly anachronistic behaviors, we never got around to it.
Our room in the HDP was something else. It’s not often you get to sleep in a four-posted bed with wispy curtains. No one was on hand to feed us figs, but they were definitely going for that vibe.
That night we went to a restaurant called Sheesha that, we were disappointed to learn, was no longer a place where you could recline on divans and smoke sheesha, as it had been recently outlawed. But it was a place where you could recline on divans and drink beer and eat good food, which proved an acceptable substitute. The chef’s specialty were kebabs that were indeed amazing, though more in “dude, you have to try this awesome new kebab place” way than a distinctly Indian way. I do believe this was my favorite meal of the trip, though. For one thing, when I told the waiter point blank to please, please, for the love of God, this time, make it spicy, don’t assume that just because I’m a Westerner I don’t know what I’m talking about, I really really cross-my-heart no-take-backs want it spicy … it was actually spicy. It wasn’t ambitious — “sheesha masala” was basically their little twist on tikka masala — but the twist was a definite improvement, and it was, to be sure, full-on love-it-now, pay-for-it-later spicy.
We saw cricket played everywhere in India, always a pick-up game going on in one field or another by the side of the road. There was professional cricket game showing on the TV, and so a chunk of dinner conversation revolved around the rules of cricket, which Matt and Sarah had a much better handle on than anyone else at the table.And so for a brief shining moment there I felt like I actually got cricket — not in the sense of understanding why it’s the second-most popular sport in the world, which I will always find baffling, but in the sense of being able to kind of understand what’s even going on in a game.
Our guide for our full day in Jaipur was Sandeep, a Jain from a local jewelcrafting family. He proudly showed us a picture of him posing with the previous maharaja. His initial charm wore off a little at our first stop, when he exhorted us to steer well clear of the beggars, because they were — and he said every single one of these things, it was so remarkable I wrote it down right afterward — drunks and opium addicts and riddled with diphtheria and cholera and cancer.
That first stop was the Amber Fort (pronounced and sometimes spelled Amer), also known as the Amber Palace, one of the go-to places in Jaipur. Situated on a promontory with a beautiful view of the surrounding hills, it served as the Rajput capital until the city of Jaipur was founded. Where the Mughal architecture we had seen so far was a fusion of Muslim and Hindu, the Amber stuff was a mixture of Rajput styles and Hindu ones from further south. It was from here that the Rajput maharajas oversaw the extraction of all that sandstone used to create so many famous Mughal structures, and ruled over the artisans that shaped and prepared many of those precious stones in the Taj. The Fort had a lot of the trappings that by now were becoming quite familiar to us: the Hall of Public Audience, the Hall of Private Audience, quarters for the harem girls, all the rest. But while we had seen similar things at Fatehpur Sikri and the Agra Fort, here you had the added benefit of Vistas everywhere you look.
We were really dazzled the first time we saw a snake charmer at a quick stop on the way there, but when we had passed several more on the way up the hill, we realized that Dudes with Cobras was kind of a thing here. Same with elephant rides — we did one, as it was part of our tour package, but for some reason they weren’t running them up to Amber Fort the way they usually do, so ours was just on a random stretch of road in town. It was just OK.
After Amber Fort we stopped at a Small Crafts Emporium. I was outvoted in this respect. They made a big deal about how they were a government emporium in which no one made any commission and prices were fixed. I don’t know how true either of those statements were, but I’m certain that they were an attempt to cater to the tastes of Western shoppers, and they in no way meant that we were going to escape the hard sell. After a carefully choreographed demonstration of some local weaving and dyeing techniques, we were whisked up the third floor to the Rug Room where a small army of salespeople unfurled rugs before us while the lead guy went on about the rugmaking tradition in Rajasthan and we were encouraged to take off our shoes and walk on them. Then they offered us tea, which I realized would mean spending even longer there, so I bolted, planning to wait for the others outside. That’s when I realized that the place was laid out so that, leaving the Rug Room, you were threaded past all the other vendors in the building selling statues and jewelry and the rest on the way out.
I’ll admit, I’m a huge shopping curmudgeon. Everybody else got something out of it while I sulked outside. But I did get to have a nice conversation with Balraj as a result. He’s a young guy, and his situation is not at all uncommon — he’s working his ass off as a driver in order to provide for a wife and an eleven-month-old who live in a village out in the country, toward the mountains up Rishikesh way. He sees them a couple times a year. When he takes people on multi-day excursions like ours he gets a per diem for his own lodging and food — many hotels have a staff room with bunks for people in his situation. His gig before us had been taking a couple elderly Dutch women on a northern India tour for something like two months — he asked me where the heck The Netherlands was anyway, so I showed him on my iPad.
Back in Jaipur proper, we saw the City Palace, full of odds and ends from the maharajas — old clothes, paintings, weaponry. The best part was the gigantic silver urn that one maharaja used to bring his own drinking water with him when visiting England, since he believed that if he drank the water there it would turn his skin white. Then on to the astronomical structures of the original Jantar Mantar — we had already seen the one in Delhi, but this one was bigger and more impressive and had come first. But it was deucedly hot by then, and Eric had already gone back to the hotel with a bit of a stomach bug, so as impressive as it was we were ready for a break, and didn’t linger for long.
Our parting with Sandeep was short and not particularly sweet — he had tried to double-charge us with some of the access fees for the sights, and though we didn’t flat-out accuse him we didn’t let it slide either. We spent the late afternoon hanging out at the HDP … played a game of St. Petersburg in our ridiculously well-appointed hotel room, and waited to see if Eric would rally for dinner. As we were heading out there was some sort of Event going on at the hotel which involved a full dress guard and a bunch of horses and elephants and pageantry. Possibly a wedding? At any rate we ate at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, atop another hotel downtown — ambience was lovely, sitting on a low table open to the sky with the city lights and the warm breeze and a couple bottles of wine.
We had a leisurely morning at the HDP before heading out — a relaxed breakfast on the lawn, using the spotty wi-fi to keep tabs on the third presidential debate back home. Then it was time to head back toward Delhi, though Balraj thoughtfully suggested making a stop en route at Jaigarh Fort, another cool Rajput structure that we had seen further along the ridgeline from Amber Fort the previous day. The grounds were full of monkeys and peacocks and bright green parakeets. One of its claims to fame is Jaivana, a cannon which was, when built in 1720 for Jai Singh II, the biggest cannon in the world. It’s not clear whether it ever saw active use other than being test-fired, but even those were enough to generate a good number of stories: When it fired, all the pregnant women in Jaipur miscarried. It took four elephants to rotate it. When it fired, the gunner died from the shockwave. It had a range of 40 kilometers. At any rate, yeah, big cannon, and Jaigarh had even better views than Amber Fort. Great place to wander the walls for a morning. One time as we were edging close to a pack of monkeys for some pictures, Balraj came running up to warn us away — he had been back at the car, so someone must have tipped him off as to what we were up to you …“Hey Balraj, your stupid Americans are about to get attacked by monkeys,” or something like that.
The drive back was longish, partly occupied by pass-and-play games on the iPad, partly by wonkish health and education policy talk that started off at our lunch stop. Traffic snarled up as we approached Delhi. Balraj was a generally conservative driver, content to let others cut in as long as things were flowing at a decent pace. But at one point as we were approaching a real logjam, he swung abruptly left into a roadside gas station, careened over some rocky ground and aggressively cut in on the other side of the jam — doing it all so smoothly that we barely noticed. We were genuinely sad to have to say goodbye to him when he dropped us off back at the High Commission late in the day.
Our remaining days in India were spent all in Delhi, a little slower-paced than the rest of the trip, but with a cold and a stomach bug bouncing around the group, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first day back we went to the Lotus Temple, a house of worship for the Baha’i faith, and one of the big architectural attractions of the city. It’s a big lotus-shaped structure, nine massive stone “leaves” enfolding a central auditorium where absolute silence reigns. Even with all the tourists moving through, I could see how it would be an excellent space for meditation or prayer. The grounds were remarkable, too, for their openness — wide sidewalks and wider lawns taking up what was probably outer-surburb territory when it was built in the 80’s, but now constitutes a surprising amount of park-like acreage in the city.
The majesty of the place and the energetic beauty of the volunteers definitely helped sell the Baha’i faith, which of course was part of the point. Strolling through the visitors’ center you’re presented with a laid-back, all-inclusive religion with completely unobjectionable tenets of faith. You have to read the displays there a little more carefully to pick up on the fact that it has been, and still is, cult-of-personality-driven to a slightly creepy degree. I had a feeling that wasn’t the whole story, but it took a consultation of the Internets afterward to verify that the faith’s inclusivity didn’t extend to, say, homosexuals.
Three of us rode in an autorickshaw back to the High Commission in a harrowing ride that was primarily notable in that, at this point a harrowing ride in an autorickshaw was not all that notable any more.
Today was Dussehra, one of the big Hindu religious holidays, commemorating, among other things, Rama’s victory over the demon Ravana in the Ramayana. That meant that things were crowded all over town, and so, after a midday siesta with chai, there was not a taxi to be found, even for ready money. Undeterred, all eight adults and two kids of us clown-carred into Benoy’s BMW five-seater and headed to the Lodi Gardens for a late afternoon stroll. The park was huge, with lots of winding paths and lots of Indians taking walks, picnicking, or just hanging around. The vibe was very Central Park, except in Central Park you won’t find 600-year-old tombs and mosques. The Lodi dynasty was one of the pre-Mughal Muslim dynasties — Pashtun rulers from what is now Afghanistan. Their structures are scattered all through the gardens, free and open for people to explore, poke around in, and climb on, a fact which seemed mind-blowing when I stopped to think about it, but which to the locals was no big deal at all.
Afterwards we skirted the huge crowds gathering near the India Gate and grabbed a bite at Bengali Sweet House — an old school New Delhi dive famed for serving northern street food and snacks. For example, we wanted samosas, which are a staple Indian restaurant appetizer in the West, but in Delhi you would only order them from a street stall unless you were at a peculiar restaurant like the Sweet House. (Ironically, they were out of samosas that day.) I found a non-Western dessert that I actually liked — gulab jamun. I suspect that they would be absolutely transcendent if made with rum, though I’d be shocked if some hip Asian fusion restaurant somewhere hasn’t already tried it.
Back at the High Commission, we conversed in the back yard, enjoying Tia Maria and Doritos. The Doritos were mainly just me — I had snagged a bag at the commissary on compound earlier in the trip, knowing that they’d come in handy.
Five of the six of us were good and ready by this point for a day of shopping, and I played along. Our destination was the State Emporiums — a famous row of shops where each one featured the crafts, clothing, and tchotchkes of a different Indian state. Since we hadn’t taken the subway yet, we made the long walk along Lutyens’ wide New Delhi boulevards to the nearest Metro station, and took that to Connaught Place, not far from where we had been a week earlier for our first full day of Delhi. The Metro was newish, clean, efficient, cheap, and very crowded — in my limited subway experience, it was more similar to Boston’s than New York’s or DC’s, but with Tokyo levels of density.
Consulting our assorted guidebooks and maps, we made our way the right direction out of Rajiv Chowk, and were in fact walking, unbeknownst to us, directly to our destination, when a man “helpfully” ushered to turn right at the corner, hinting that the Emporiums were just up that way. We then “bumped into” another young guy who was extremely helpful and chatty and was delighted to walk with us and show us where it was. I don’t take a whole lot pleasure in being the one who realized that this was just a scam — one of the things these guys play off is the fact that people are generally nice and reluctant to call someone out or to bring their party to a screeching halt. So I walked along with increasing agitation as this guy led the group down a different road. His motive was not sinister, of course — he was leading us to a completely different shop that he thought we should pop into. When we averred that this was not the State Emporiums, he was all “oh sure, oh sure,” they’re right through this gate and down this way, but wouldn’t you like to stop here first?
The problem was now we were exactly where we didn’t want to be — on a random corner in Delhi clustered around our maps and guidebooks trying to sort out where we were and how to get to where we wanted to go. This naturally attracted autorickshaws, which we eventually allowed to take us where we wanted to go … which they didn’t do. They took us to a place which was labeled “Cottage Emporium.” We knew that the Cottage Emporium was another shopping spot in the area, one we planned to get to eventually, so we went in. The fact that this place bore no resemblance to the one that Theressa had described to us should have tipped us off right away, but in point of fact it took a little while to figure that out.
From there we got our bearings and found the State Emporiums — we had been literally half a block from them when we got sidetracked at the beginning. It still steams me to think about the scams and what they turn people into. What you want to be, in a new place, in a new culture, is open — that openness to other people and new situations consists of, indeed requires, a certain amount of trust. But in the presence of a scam the prudent attitude to take is not one of openness but of constant, cynical suspicion. And of course you can never be sure when you’ll come across a scam, which leads to a more or less permanent state of paranoia. If, after hopping off the Metro, we had brushed off everyone offering to help us and assumed they were trying to lead us astray, we would have been insulating ourselves from the very society we had flown halfway around the world to experience — but we would have been right. That’s the awful situation that scammers put you in. Hate it hate it hate it.
For all that, though, the State Emporiums were a great success. Sure, everyone else was able to spend way more time browsing and shopping than I was before growing bored, but even I found a cool box for polyhedral dice, And Matt found an wool-lined vest from the state of Bihar that was so awesome Eric and I each got one too. We took a break for lunch at Nizam’s Kathi Kebab, a little counter service place with Indian pop music playing and a poor quality recording of The Two Towers showing on the TV. They served kebabs wrapped in greasy chapati — very decadent and very, very good.
That night, thanks to some tickets floating around the High Commission that Theressa grabbed on our behalf, we were Very Very Important Persons. When we hopped in a taxi that night heading for the grounds of the Red Fort, we didn’t really know what we were in for, except that it was the last night of a Ramlila performance — a ten-day affair recounting the entire story of the Ramayana in song and dance. Now the Red Fort itself is huge, made of — you guessed it! — red sandstone, but when we arrived we saw that on the grounds in front of it was a carnival. Imagine a county fair sort of affair, with lots of snack booths and a few other activity booths and things, with a big ferris wheel in the middle tying the whole thing together. Now imagine half a dozen of those placed next to each other — this festival had at least six huge ferris wheels spread out across it. We found our way to the outdoor stage, which had a bunch of folding chairs set up, but in the very front, nearest the stage, a couple dozen couches had been put there with sheets over them — this, it turned out, was the VVIP seating.
We got there a few minutes after seven o’clock, as indicated on the invitation. This proved to be one of those extreme examples of Indian Standard Time, where start times are a good deal more flexible than in American Standard Time. We were aware of IST; in my experience up until that point it was noticeable, but practically punctual compared to West African Standard Time. But when we had been sitting for an hour and nothing had really happened yet, I realized that maybe I had underestimated IST.
Then things did start to happen, in a kind of slow-build way that kept us waiting there for way longer than we probably should. Someone in a fantastic costume would poke his head from behind the gaudily decorated screen, as if about to make an entrance. The musicians up front tuned and then started playing. More strangely, off to the side of the stage, but still on the stage, a table was set up stacked high with … awards and mementos, as best we could guess. There was a guy who was clearly a Dignitary, not in charge of the production itself but probably in charge of the larger event. We were excited when a few people made it on the stage and some dialogue actually happened. This being the last day of Ramlila, we were seeing, as best I could figure it, the Epilogue, post-climax, after Rama has vanquished Ravana and is heading home. I was holding out hope that Hanuman’s awesome “Dude, I’ve got you guys in my chest” schtick might come into play. But after a scene or a part of a scene, there was a break for … speeches. From the Dignitary and some lesser dignitaries off on stage right. And there was the presenting of things from the table to assorted other people who were apparently there simply to receive them and be thanked for something or other.
After a couple rounds of this the play really felt like it started in earnest. The music kicked into gear and there was dancing. To my untrained eyes a good bit of it seemed a little amateurish but energetic, more community theater than Royal Shakespeare, as it were. But the two lead dancers, male and female, were very skilled and quite captivating. But then inexplicably, right in the middle of the action, the Dignitary would casually stroll right in front of the action in order say something to the guys playing the music right at the foot of stage center. And then saunter back to the gift table.
For all we know, an hour later, the performance really did kick into gear and remain uninterrupted, and Hanuman tore open his chest, and the forty-foot tall effigy set up behind all the seats burst into flame. But we were all ravenously hungry — we hadn’t eaten yet, and had desperately assuaged our hunger with some carnival food that, in retrospect, was a very ill-advised move. And we could not be sure that the current cycle of performance snippets interrupted by interminable speeches would not continue indefinitely — certainly the table o’ goodies on stage made it seem as if they had a hundred or so things they still had to award to folks. And so we called it a night and headed home. Writing about it now, I wish we had stayed through to the end, or at least explored the carnival a bit more — it certainly would have made this travelogue more interesting! But, in the twilight days of our vacation, the prospect of kicking back at the High Commission continued to have very strong appeal.
The others had not yet whetted their shopping appetites, and headed off the next day for the aforementioned Cottage Emporium, a cavernous building divided into a maze of shopping warrens. I abstained, and got in some exercise at the gym on compound, which was full of shiny brand-new equipment. I read some books with Neesha and played chess with Dev after they got back from school — if you haven’t guessed, I was indeed missing my own kids quite a bit by this point. Later that afternoon, after the shoppers had returned and exhibited their wares, Suanna and Eric, both devotees of Indian cuisine, got to “help” Geeta, Theressa and Benoy’s part time nanny and cook, make a wide assortment of Indian dishes for dinner that night. I got a big kick out of seeing her bustling around the kitchen in a Calvin College Food Service apron — Theressa’s old apron from when she worked in the cafeteria in college. Eric took copious notes and pictures, and Geeta was very sporting about it all, and the food was excellent.
Afterwards the six of us headed for the mall. We had no particular desire to visit a mall, but we did want to see a Bollywood movie while we were in town, and it proved the most convenient way to do so, given the showtimes. We took a taxi there through Delhi’s usual crowded streets, and crossed a sort of construction wasteland with dirt roads and lots of things going up but nothing actually built yet. But then we got out and entered a mall that, but for the fact that everyone else in there was Indian, would be indistinguishable from any sprawling, two-story mall you’d find anywhere in the U.S. Sure, there was Cafe Coffee Day instead of Starbuck’s, and a few other replacements of that kind, but the vibe, the ambience, the opulence, were all very, very mall-like. All the usual juxtapositions I had grown accustomed to in India — smelly dog sleeping in front of Benetton store, bare-chested workers waste deep in mud digging a ditch next to a fancy restaurant — were completely absent at the mall. Everything was clean and sterile-seeming. It was bizarre … a sort of reverse culture shock.
We picked a newly-opened movie, Rush. Gutsy investigative reporter takes a high profile job but discovers the terrible secrets of his corrupt boss, and must Make Things Right while staying true to his girlfriend and resisting the temptations of the hot lady at his new job. I wasn’t sure whether to attribute what seemed like the hokey, not-so-good bits to a cultural difference, or an inability to appreciate the aesthetic language of Bollywood, but judging from the reviews and its utter lack of box office success, it appears that it was simply a bad movie. Still, it was fun to see the action interspersed with sudden song-and-dance numbers. And the lack of subtitles didn’t really hinder us any — partly because the plot was broad, but also because the dialogue was full of English interjections, colloquialisms, sometimes full sentences. I’m not sure where it fell on the spectrum from “Hindi, with a few English bits” to full-on “Hinglish,” but at any rate it wasn’t hard to follow.
It was the last night with all of us together — Matt and Sarah were catching a middle-of-the-night flight a day earlier than the rest of us. Benoy broke out a smoky Indian rum after we got back from the movie, and all was well.
Red Fort and Old Delhi
There were still a few things the remaining four of us wanted to see in Delhi, so we got an early enough start the next day to show up at the Red Fort right as it opened. We passed through the massive gates that we had seen a couple nights earlier under the carnival lights. After Shah Jahan built it and moved the capital there, it was where the Mughal emperors reigned from then on. Construction started after the Taj Mahal but it was actually finished sooner. Ultimately Jahan didn’t get much use of the Fort himself, since he was imprisoned back at Agra Fort, and so it was his son Aurangzeb who really inhabited it in its prime. The British took it over during the Raj, and after the 1857 uprising militarized it thoroughly, getting rid of much that had been beautiful and palace-y around the grounds, installing barracks and water towers and the like. Taking the place back from British during independence was very important symbolically, and it is still at the Fort where the Prime Minister raises the flag and makes a national address every Independence Day, August 15.
We got there at a good time — it was a warm pleasant morning, it wasn’t crowded at all, and the snarl of guides and touts we encountered in Agra and elsewhere was entirely absent. We had the whole Mughal architecture thing pretty well down by this point, but I wasn’t yet tired of it. The disrepair here was definitely understandable — given how long the place had been a dumping ground for British soldiery, it was actually impressive that there was as much preserved there as there was. But I did find myself wishing they had done more in the way of restoration. There was this amazing garden there, with intricate fountainworks, widespread squares connected by canals lined with various spouts, and none of it was working, of course, but if they had just got it going in even a rough approximation of what it would have looked like back in the day, it would have been amazing.
We walked right out of the Red Fort and onto Chandni Chowk, the main market thoroughfare of Old Delhi. And here, as elsewhere in India, you have to recalibrate your definition of “Old” — while it has certainly existed in its current form since the time of the Mughals, there has probably been a bazaar here in one form or another for as long as the city has existed. We stopped at a jalebi-wallah (sweet-seller) whose shop had been open since the time of Shah Jahan, though we were in more of a savory mood, so we got some spicy cashews there instead of sweets. That shop was in a part of the street that consisted of almost nothing but jalebi-wallahs; when we rounded a corner a little further down, we found ourselves in a block containing nothing but booksellers. And for all the shops we saw on the main thoroughfares, we also glimpsed the tiny, jam-packed side streets that led to who-knows-how-many-other places. In a way it was good we went here on our last day in Delhi; the sheer density of people in Old Delhi would have been quite a shock to the system otherwise. At one point we found ourselves in a traffic jam where it was almost impossible to move forward — but the largest vehicle in the jam was a bicycle. It was all people — especially people with huge packages on their heads — and bikes, but it still took us five minutes to move forward ten feet.
We circled ‘round Old Delhi, taking it in, an then stopped at Delhi’s Jama Masjid, reminiscent of the one in Fatehpur Sikri, but more crowded, and strict — they wanted to charge us for every camera or picture-taking device that we had, and Suanna and Rebecca had to put on these ridiculous, gaudy robes to cover their arms and shoulders. Next to the mosque, Delhi’s Muslims were bringing goats to be slaughtered — it must have been a religious holiday of some sort. At one point we saw a guy with two goats desperately trying to find a taxi or autorickshaw that would let him and his goats in. A series of Old Delhi stalls across from the mosque were killing the goats, and I don’t mean discretely out back — before I realized what I was looking at, I saw a goat lying on the front sidewalk with its throat cut, taking its last stuttering breaths, bleeding out into the gutter.
We ate at Moti Mahal, a good last Indian meal. Our taxi driver for the ride back was an old and grizzled Sikh driving an ancient Hindustan Ambassador. His use of the horn was even more liberal than the Delhi standard — at one pointed he cackled and blew the horn repeatedly simply out of joy for finding a stretch of open road and being able to put the pedal to the floor. At every stop we appeared to be in grievous danger of stalling out.
But we got back just fine, and from there on, there’s not much to tell. Benoy and the kids headed out that afternoon to visit his family in Bihar, so we bid them a fond farewell, took showers, packed, played ping-pong (curse you Eric, still can’t beat you!), and took the long stroll on a beautiful night to the U.S. Embassy — twice, since we forgot our passports — for a last dinner with Theressa. We went to the airport in the middle of the night, had what seemed like it might become an issue with the Kafkaesque security at the airport visavis our e-tickets, but after that it was just the hurry-up-and-wait of the long homeward journey, similar to the journey there but with less talking, more sleeping, and more Immodium.
And that’s it — other than to put a point on how very fine hosts Theressa and Benoy were, and how I couldn’t have asked for better traveling companions, and how diminished our memories of the whole thing would be without Suanna’s amazing pictures, including most of those that accompany this travelogue. She will post many more of them soon; I’ll update this with the link. I leave you with a few more pictures:
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