Our Passage To India

Our passage to incredible India–a land of marble verandahs, scalloped arches, onion domes and extreme contrasts–started at the Gateway to Mumbai (Bombay), where we stayed across the street at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower not to be confused with the real Taj Mahal in Agra. The Gate was constructed to honor the visit of King George in 1927. Mumbai is nicknamed the “city that never sleeps” but you will you see many people sleeping on the sidewalks.

To grasp how large and crowded it is, India has over a billion people (300 million in the U. S.) and supports 24 languages and 1,000 dialects. It has the second largest railroad system in the world, but the two trains we took were old and very dirty. There were people sleeping all over the station. Millions live in slums but Bollywood cranks out 850 movies a year– and most are 3 to 4 hours long. Hindus make up about 80% of the population, 10 % are Muslim, and 5% Roman Catholic. Hindus eat no beef and Muslims no pork. Though there are not supposed to be castes, the four are Brahmins (scholars and priests), Kshatriyar (warriors, rulers and large landholders), Vaisyas (businessmen, traders, artisans), and what was once called Untouchables (menial tasks, sweeping, cleaning).

We took a boat to Elephanta Island to visit the caves, but the most memorable part was getting to the caves. Four men carried me up 108 steps on a sedan chair, stopping only twice to rest. One had feet like leather and wore no shoes. I bet they flipped coins to see who would carry the heaviest passengers!

And then I got “Delhi belly.” During the two-week trip, twelve of our twenty tourists had it at one time or another. Sixteen hours later I was ready to fly to Udaipur. Interestingly airport security checks are separate for men and women, yet there was sometimes a man supervising women’s restrooms.

Udaipur seemed more like a resort because of its lake that has a hotel, which was once a palace right in the middle. During a recent drought, single hump camels (two humps in Africa) were used to transport guests to the hotel instead of boats. No wonder they’re called the cars of the desert. In Udaipur, descendents of Maharajas still live in the City Palace. There was an extra treat at our hotel; it was being all decked out for a wedding. We ran into the parents of the bride who invited us to the event and then surprised us by saying they were from Texas. Their third daughter wanted to be married in her ancestral land. Most of the guests had never been to India. The groom chose to arrive by horseback instead of elephant. Indian weddings go on for hours, so we never got to the reception part.

We boarded our bus to Jodhpur and sat through the bumpiest seven-hour ride I’ve ever experienced. Actually, the same thing happened on my first trip to India. A chiropractor’s paradise! The roads are practically all two lanes and I felt like the target in a video game. Here’s what’s trying to get you: trucks that say “horn, please” so you must honk when you pass, buses with people clinging to the top and sides, cars, tractors, three-wheel carts, ox carts, bikes, motor bikes, camels, elephants, herds of water buffalo, cows, goats, sheep, scrawny stray dogs, and donkeys. The four things you need when driving in India are a horn, brakes, steel nerves, and luck. According to our guide, cars have multiplied from a few to thousands in 30 years. Someone said that the English drive on the left side of the road, we Americans drive on the right, and Indians in the middle.

Holy Cows

The ubiquitous sacred or holy cows sometimes belong to farmers who milk them in the morning and turn them loose. You see villagers feeding them green hay sometimes or the cows forage in all the garbage that is everywhere. Then they go home at night. There are also cowcatchers that put them in trucks and transport them outside the city, but they usually find their way back. They are city cows, ignoring all the traffic and lying in the center of roads or on the meridians and sometimes even wandering into a shop.

Other animal problems are “dancing bears.” Fortunately there is now a group that rescues them from their cruel life and we saw none. We were also asked not to take pictures of any monkeys on leashes. Captive monkeys are illegal and we saw only a few. One of my favorite sights was the wild peacocks, the national bird of India, roaming in the countryside. I admit I couldn’t resist buying a peacock feather fan.

Jodhpur was on the Silk Road over 500 years ago and not much has changed in that ensuing half-millennium. It’s a wonder how they built the Mehrangarh Fort centuries ago high atop a hill overlooking the “blue city of Jodhpur.” So called because many of the houses are painted blue, all of which belong to the Brahmin caste. The Maharaja of Jodhpur still lives in the palace. Smartly, the Maharajah has reopened the fort and turned it into a museum of royal treasures open to the public. The Maharaja of Jodhpur still lives in the palace. Though we didn’t meet him, we had lunch on one of the verandahs. Labor is cheap, so many designers such as Armani customize their work in this city. The story goes that in the olden days the Maharaja of Jodhpur went to England and his luggage was lost. When he went to a tailor to replace his tight-legged full-top britches, the tailor asked what they were called. The Maharaja thought he said, “From where?” and replied, “Jodhpur.”