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Out of India

February 8, 2009 · Print This Article

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“In your country, wrong is wrong. In my country, wrong is right. The government officials come to the villages and give everyone bottles of cheap wine to get their votes and then go back to their safe houses and lives afterward. They do nothing for us.”

So said Mangu, a young twenty-something waiter in our hotel’s restaurant in Udaipur. This spoke volumes about his perspective on the corruption in the Indian government and the bleak prospects that he and many others have for the future. He was born in a village some 100km away from Udaipur and came to the city in order to make a living. A living in this case is earning 2,000 rupees per month, a sum total of little more than $40 USD. His wife and two children live in his home village and he returns by bus and foot once each month.

“They treat poor people differently here.”

This is what Eliot uttered as we walked outside the Delhi airport at 11 PM on the night of our arrival. I’m not sure he really knew how to express it, but he was a little shaken by his first experience with India. He has seen poverty during our travels, and much back home in Durham too, but hadn’t really seen it in such an “in your face” manner as he did with the many homeless people begging for a rupee as we walked to our car.

“No, I feel less safe after 26/11 than before.” “Having a nuclear missile is very important for India and shows that we are powerful.”

Our driver Kamal made these statements during the many hours we spent together shuttling from city to city. Security and India’s place amongst the great world powers is a very important subject these days, especially in India.

These were three very different, but powerful statements to me about India. I also enjoyed reading a book titled Planet India: How the Fastest Growing Democracy Is Transforming America and the World that had interesting facts and observations. Here is a quote from the book that I found to be quite a good summary.

“India is the world in microcosm. Its geography encompasses every climate, from the snowcapped Himalayas to palm-fringed beaches to deserts where nomads and camels roam. A developing country, India is divided among a tiny affluent minority, a rising middle class, and 800 million people who live on less than $2 per day. India faces all the critical problems of our time — extreme social inequality, employment insecurity, a growing energy crisis, severe water shortages, a degraded environment, global warming, a galloping HIV/AIDS epidemic, terrorist attacks, on a scale that defies the imagination.”

…..and a few more facts to consider:

UNICEF reports that 200 million malnourished children live in India, one-third of all malnourished children in the world.

70% of India’s population lives in rural areas, with 120 million farming families in India and 600,000 villages.

“My children will have a better life than me because of education.” This is another quote that we heard from many people. So, amidst really challenging economic, infrastructure and health circumstances, many people find reason to believe that the future will be better.  I suppose that they may be proven right, but so many challenges must be overcome along the way.

We are now in New Zealand as I finish this post, feeling like we’ve landed on another planet or perhaps back on our familiar planet. Had I written our second India installment during the first week, the tone and mood may in fact have been a bit bleaker, but the message of loving our visit to India would have been the same. The change from being overwhelmed at the start to settling in to a rhythm took about 1 1/2 weeks, helped mainly by smaller cities, more comfortable accommodations and just getting used to seeing so many people, animals, etc. We moved from counting the days until we left to being amazed at how many days quickly had passed.

Our mode of travel throughout India was with a car and driver, a very common and economical way for foreign tourists to see many sites. We really had mixed feelings about this choice, which while it was probably best for us, left us with some remorse along the way. Traveling this way was really like being in a bubble, separated by a barrier from the real people on the streets and in the communities. But, how much could we expect an American 7, 10 or 12 year old to handle?  No matter where our kids were they were practically accosted by the locals. Surrounded by hordes of school children, cheeks pinched by a passing woman or grabbed and squeezed by a smiling shop owner, they were constantly under observation. When stopped in traffic in a small village, people walked up to the car and with their faces mere inches from the windows proceeded to stare at them until our car moved on.  Jack in particular had a difficult time with this, and said, “I don’t stare at people who look different than me at school or back home.” We reminded the kids that while tourists are a fairly common sight in India, young tourist children are not.  There were daily lessons about respect and acceptance of  different cultures without judgment, because the norm in the United States is not always the norm around the world.

Even though there were some difficult times to our trip to India, there were many true highlights as well.

The first was our reunion in Pushkar with the Maaske family from Canada. A reunion with people you only met for about two hours may sound strange, but that is exactly what it was. We first met them in a restaurant in Arequipa, Peru, back in September when the very outgoing and dynamic Raymond said to his wife, “See that family over there, they must be traveling around the world like us.” He introduced himself and for an hour or two we enjoyed their company over lunch and a brief visit to our hostel. The kids especially enjoyed meeting each other and we have kept up with each other through our blogs and occasional emails. It was just fabulous to share our stories of world travel, both the highs and the lows, and have the kids just play together for two days straight. Here are the pictures from our visit with them.

The second real highlight came during our one night stay in Desert National Park near Jaisalmer in the far western area of Rajasthan, only about 100km from the Pakistan border. The Park encompasses part of the Great Thar Desert and provided us a small peak into desert life, complete with a spectacular night sky illuminated by some of the brightest stars you’ll ever see. When we first arrived in Khuri Village, we took a two-hour camel ride to one of the nearby sand dunes and enjoyed a really beautiful sunset. Then we returned to the huts for dinner and some local music/dancing. As was usual in India, the food was delicious, although without french toast or french fries, Eliot was at a loss for what to eat. Yes, one can survive three weeks eating those two foods almost exclusively. Eggs, potatoes and bread. Not really balanced, but it provided him some energy. We went on to Jaisalmer (Eliot called it Dalsheimer because he had a hard time pronouncing Jaisalmer) after our one night in the desert. Here are some pictures from that segment of our travels.

Now, back to our travels in a more chronological order. After arriving in Delhi we headed Southeast to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Both were beautiful, amazing and fascinating. None of those words really apply to the town of Agra which we, and it seems most travelers, could do without. The fog (smog?) we experienced in Delhi was even thicker here and really limited our visibility the second morning when we visited the Fort. We could not see the Taj Mahal across the river, but the fog provided an almost mystical quality to the fort. Pictures from this time are in our first India post.

After Agra we went further south and west to Ranthambore National Park in search of the famed Indian tiger. Sorry to say, after two extensive trips into the park we failed to see one. Many tiger prints on the road and warning calls from the Sambar Deer told us that one was nearby, but it was not to be. We did enjoy exploring the beautiful park and seeing many other different animals (peacock/hen, crocodile, king fisher, mongoose, parrot, spotted deer, monkeys among others).

Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, was next. It is a city of many millions of people and we found it to be a bit overwhelming. The Amber Fort was interesting and the food continued to be really good, but we were happy to move on to smaller places.

Udaipur came after Jaipur and we would have stayed for many more days if our schedule allowed. We really loved the old narrow cobblestone streets, the amazing palaces and the views afforded by the lake. Eliot wanted to see the fairytale like Lake Palace ever since seeing a picture in the guidebook and the in person experience didn’t let him down. Our hotel was really charming, right on the lake with a wonderful restaurant on the roof. An evening of local dancing, including fire and 10 pots on dancer’s heads, was a magical one.  Of the Indian cities we toured, this was by far our favorite.

We left Udaipur for the small town of Ranakpur, reached by many twisty roads through some low lying mountains or foothills. The town itself and associated guest houses appear to be there only for visitors to the nearby Jain Temple. We quickly understood why. The temple was one of our favorites, with 1,144 unique carved marble pillars. It was a maze-like structure with some of the most beautiful carving work. Our visit included one small moment of panic when I realized that my wallet was missing, only to find it in my back pocket after a few minutes. Once my heart restarted, I realized that I inadvertently placed the wallet there, the first time I had placed it in my back pocket in the last 6 months. It has been in my front pocket for security from day one of the trip, but old habits have a way of creeping back at times.

After Ranakpur we headed further north to Jodhpur, known as the blue city for it’s use of blue paint on most houses. Apparently, the color blue, besides being pretty, affords a measure of protection against mosquitoes. The fort there was truly spectacular and the local market in the old city was extremely vibrant. Just one night here and then on to the desert, as covered above.

Bikaner and then Mandawa were our last two stops after the desert/Jaisalmer. Outside of my crazy excitement of finding an Indian velodrome and riding an Indian bicycle once around, neither place really captured our hearts. They were interesting, but at this point I think everyone was starting to look ahead to our departure more than focusing on the moment. The kids were a bit “templed and castled out” at this point too. So, we made the most of our stops and then headed on to Delhi.

India was definitely overwhelming as we reported in our earlier posting. From the moment that we set foot in Delhi until our last, the hustle and bustle of the millions of people was ever present. Driving through the streets involved constant evasive maneuvers to avoid cows, pigs, bicycles, camel carts, speeding buses, trucks loaded to the extreme and people walking everywhere. Our speed never exceeded 90 km/h (about 55 mph) and mostly hovered around 30 or 490 km/h most of the time. Drives that would take 2 hours in most countries we’ve visited extended to 4 or 5 hours. We thought Hong Kong and Cambodia were difficult places to navigate; they both pale in comparison to India.

In the end we were really tired and ready to head back to Bangkok and then New Zealand. Grateful for the experience, but ready to move on.

Thanks again to Prasad, Abhi and Ken who all helped ensure an enjoyable visit.

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