As we cannot connect with AOL in India, I am writing a letter about our adventure.
It is dawn in Agra, city of the Taj Mahal, I am on our balcony and it is crispy cool. I hear the morning Moslem prayers being chanted in the distance. The birds are flying by and the people are out in the fieldsá some squatting out in the open – their morning toilet.
Our Indian experience has been, let’s say, up and down, beginning in a downward spiral and hopefully will get better.
First of all, as I have written (and it is very clear to see now that we are in another culture), Laos and Cambodia were the perfect countries for us. We wanted to stay much longer to relax but the Jaisalmir, Rajasthan, India Camel Fair was luring us oná so, we flew from Cambodia to Bangkok (had a jam packed hectic time as we had packages and postcards to send, emails to send and pick up and “the spirit house had to be shippedá but that’s another story*). We were rushed and tired but we finally get on the plane at 8:30 PM to fly to Delhi (getting in at midnight – another Ugh flight.) Getting on the plane, your mind must switch from Asian to Indian, as you are surrounded by Moslem turbans, women in saris and a ‘different attitude’ – some friendly, some aggressive and not as ‘gentle’ as we found in Asia. I wish everyone could have seen the first 24 hours in India. First, the lines to get thru immigration were incredibly long and slow moving. Now, it is 1 am and the passport control official threw the forms back at us demanding we fill our Visa info. I am now feeling the change in approach to tourists. Then, we wait and wait and wait for our bags that come out in dribs and drabs – people pushing and shoving and I notice for the first time on our trip, yelling all over the place. Dick now informs me that he checked on our flight to Jaiseamir for the next morning and it is NOT CONFIRMED. Uh oh!!! I should have known we were in big trouble but we still had to find a place to stay with 3 sleepy kids. It is now 2 am and we have nowhere to stay. Dick got tourist information to book us a night for 2 rooms at $30. each at the ‘Relax Inn” (I thought the name was ironic). So, I got a little worried and suggested we pay more for more comfort. We go to another tourist info booth for help. They say “Ashoka Palace” for $50. a room is three star. I feel safer so we book a taxi. Now, by this time, Dick is feeling very ‘ripped off’ by everyone at this point and we begin to get four men at a time trying to help us with our luggage and “blatantly ask for tips”. They don’t wait for you to give them a tip, they quickly say, “Give me Tips!”. We are so put off by this aggressiveness, Dick finally at one point just gives all of them one bill and tells them to split it anyway they like. Anyway, we get to our taxi, after paying for a bigger one and still feel crammed in. We arrive at our worst nightmare so far in the tripá Ashoka Palace was truly depressing which is how I rate the most horrible accommodations. I have written about our house on New Years Eve in Guatemala. All the kids said, “Mom, that house is looking pretty good right now!” They were such troopers. You know, Dick is not a night owl (Ha Ha!!!) He starts pacing the floor and declares he is just about to get back on another plane and leave. The bellman at the hotel were knocking on our doors at 5:30 am (only 3 hours of sleep for us) to say they were going off duty and wanted us to know hopefully to get yet another tip. The whole ordeal became comical. The rooms are filthy, the beds were hilly and I am not that fussy but I really felt this time I was going to get bed bugs. We thought there was no hot water but you just had to let the water run for 15 minutes. Of course, Dick had no patience for this and ended up taking a freezing cold shower. We pack quickly, have no breakfast and get a cab quickly back to the airport to take care of our tickets that are not confirmed. Well, without going into the hours we spent trying to get on the flight, we got bumped along with 30 other touristsá some of whom even had confirmed tickets. We were passed from window to window with no lines just hoards of people and at one time I even shouted, “Where’s the line?” That got everybody’s attention but we still got no help.
I forgot to tell you something else that was very interesting. We did not have a room at the Camel Fair and weeks ago I began getting worried. So Dick had a great idea (this is what makes him a superb traveler) to contact all the YPO in India (YPO is a business organization which is international that Dick is involved with in Boston) and ask for help. We were so impressedá we received so many replies of help. In a totally booked city, we had offers to stay in great hotels and luxury tents (complete with bathrooms) for the Camel Fair. Dick replies and confirmed but ironically we could not get there. It is a 12-hour drive and if we tried to drive there in the crazy traffic with no lanes, people honking, camels and elephants going byá we would have missed 2 out of 3 days of the fair. In contacting the YPO though, we found one of them to be the owner of a very good travel agency so we took full advantage, jumped in a taxi from the airport and went to the nearest SITA office. We spent a whole day there booking 2 weeks in India. By this time, we are very exhausted, the kids have been cooped up in an office, Dick is going cuckoo over their behavior and we go out to have lunch and beggars with no tongues holding a written explanation of how they got that way approach us for money, a man is taking a shower on the sidewalk at a ‘public convenience’ bathhouse. Another white haired man dressed all in white is dragging his bed outside to take a nap (I notice later on our trip that the “rest stops” along the road are just thatá besides the little restaurant there are rows of beds outside to take a ‘rest’. A vendor next to a restaurant is wrapping betel nut and spices with honey in leaves and selling them. There is a brand new Mercedes being washed with a bucket and rickety rickshaws being biked overloaded with 6 to 8 people on them. Ah, India!!!
You would have laughed because after our ordeal at Atoka Palace for $50 a room (some tourists we met at the airport said they paid $100. for the same type of dreary accommodation), we tell our travel agent to go “high end”á we mean palaces at 5 star ratings. Dick keeps asking the price, I keep emphasizing luxury and remind Dická we are in India!
We are now into the trip for over a weeká our luck has changed. We get a very nice quiet driver who does not try to take us places to get commissions and he loves the kids. We found out he is getting married next year on our anniversary to a girl from his small village that he has met once. He showed us her picture and she is very beautiful. We are also very grateful he is a good driver as the roads are incredibly challenging between the potholes, camel carts, dancing bears, over bulging trucks of hay, thousands of motorcycles (the inexpensive mode of vehicle for everyone), the local buses with people even riding on the top in the luggage rack, the tuk tuks overloaded along with jeeps with people standing out on the fenders, and of course the COWS. I get a real kick watching the sacred Hindu cows that just wander around knowing no one has the nerve to hit them based on their religious belief. Driving along you feel like you are watching a documentary on India. Just incredible sights. Everyone lives and works out in the open.
Highlights of our trip so faráfor better or for worse!
Agra and the Taj Mahal Sariska Palace and Game Park
We left Agra and our ‘convention-center size’ marble hotel to travel for 6 hours to the countryside and game reserve for tigers. Dick was dreading being in the car so long but driving in India is far from boring. I kept a journal as we drove and here are some tidbits of things that caught my eye!
Camel carts with car tires with white turbaned men driving them. All kinds of sacred and not-so-sacred cowsá largest humps are revered, low humps are used for work, females are used for milk, cows are taken to slaughter not for meat but for hide. Leaving or entering a city is utter chaos – so very crowded, a ‘crowded’ that is different in India. In Laos you would see 2 to 3 people in a little taxi tuk tuk, in India you would see 10. There are no lanes of traffic, our driver braves through honking all the time, swerving, stopping short, missing human beings by a hair. It is like playing a game of chicken and the kids are not in seat belts.
A clever ideaá bikers hold on to trucks and get a free ride.
Little businesses exist in square wooden boxes on cart wheels and can be locked up at night. You see barbers and the funniest was a Xerox machine (the Indian version of Kinko’s!) and rows of these little carts I told Dick were a strip mall.
Against a backdrop of dust and cow paddies and poverty you see beautiful brightly colored saris draped around barefoot women with bangle bracelets (mandatory for women).
Building and road construction being done by men and women carrying baskets of rubble and rock and bricks on their heads – the human bulldozer.
Dancing black bears on the road to entertain the tourists going by.
Wild monkeys everywhere but especially around the rooftops finding kitchens to “clean up”. Mustard fields of rich green and yellow set against thatched roof and mud brick huts.
Villagers getting their water from wells in the ground with buckets and then carrying it on their heads to home.
Arabic writing with its curlicues.
Moslem women that cover their faces and Hindu women that don’t.
We are driving along, the sun is low and casting a brilliant yellow light over the burnt sienna clay rocks and sand – the landscape reminds me of a cross between New Mexico and Utah (my favorite). All of a sudden, we leave the poverty and simplicity of the small villagers that mix into the rocky landscape and arrive at carved stucco gates of Sariska Palace of a former maharaja and enter into perfectly manicured flower gardens, lawns and fountains. We drive along to the grand circular staircase where a mustached man in a stately costume with red paisley turban smiles and greets us. Were we in heaven? Indian style? The kids are all smiles and can’t help but think back to ‘Ashoka Palace’ in Delhi and think, “Now, this is what we call a real palace!” It was so charming and comfortable and very informalá the Simon style.
Since Sariska is next to a game park and its most important inhabitant being a tiger, our rooms were decorated in black and gold – very dramatic and the baths were bordered in “Tiger Tile”. All the rooms surrounded lawns and gardens with chairs to relax in. Rocky hills, gorgeous birds and fragrant rose gardens surround you. There is a pool and a center for massage. The kids immediately pull out their legos, Cuisenaire rods for building and art supplies for drawing. They are so happy to stop in such a beautiful tranquil place and just be kids for a while. This is our first wonderful Indian experience.
Dick talks me into my first massage. I was apprehensive, as it seems like such a personal invasive yet indulgent thing to do for oneself. But I thought, what a great exotic place to do something like this so I tried it. Dick and I are shown into rooms where a Dr. came in and asked “Do you suffer from any stresses or ill health?” (in that formal way only an Indian can say). I thought it the polite thing to do to not say your country is one of the most stressful experiences I have encountered and instead said no and tried to make a joke by saying “unless you call traveling with 3 children stressful”. Well, he was so taken aback and gave me a lecture on the fact that so many women cannot have children and I should only be thankful with mine. Of course, I adore my children and think they are a blessing but I was more intrigued by the whole undertone of his manner. I felt he was representing that deep philosophy that Indians possess of believing in reincarnation and the caste system and how they must feel in dealing with those beliefs and poverty. It gave me food for thought. Anyway, a young girl comes in very professional with a brass bowl of oil and proceeds to given me whole body oil massage. I found it to be very relaxing and nice. I then took a shower and felt great. Dick, who wanted to do this, in the first place came out with a disgusting look on his face. He did not like the man who have him the massage. He did not like the oil and he did not like the ‘too hot’ steam bath after. He could not find the soap in the shower so walked out after his shower to go to dinner feeling silly and slimy. I got so tickled by this as the same experience got 2 totally different responses from us. I was grateful that Dick had encouraged me to do this and went on to enjoy that night on the oval patio overlooking more gardens and big bonfires. We listened to raspy Indian music and dancing under the starry night. So enchanting.
We awoke to a “chilly” morning of riding in a jeep into the park, never seeing a tiger but we did see a tiger track and was still so pleased to see lots of gray antelope with striped feet, herds of deer that looked just like Bambi, families of monkeys doing Tarzan impressions and peacocks galore. Our treat was spying a jackal walking down the path and scaring off all the other animals. It was clear who was the predator and who was the prey.
Dick and I took a walk that reminded me so of how the British would dress in their finery and take promenades to a picnic spot for a cup of tea in the countryside. We followed our guide who held a bag of all our china and silver for tea. We strolled by a river where monkeys and green parrots followed us to a place that was quite interesting. In the palace, there are black and white pictures of the maharaja and guests proudly displaying their dead tiger. One conjures up images of daring hunters stalking their prey for hours thru dangerous jungle. Well, our picnic spot was on top of what looked like a water tower but was really a blind where the maha would sit watching an ox that was tied to a ring in the ground. The tiger would come for his defenseless dinner and boom! The tiger would be shot by the hiding maha hiding in his cement bunker. Little different story than what you think when you look at these prize pictures.
As Dick and I had our fancy cup of tea, we pondered what it must have been like for these maharajas. To be surrounded by so little. Whole villagers were created just to serve his estate. They are so insular as walls and gates and guards and such surreal beauty surround them.
Our next visit to Samode Palace and Bagh (garden) would only reinforce these thoughts.
Samode Raja Palace and Samode Bagh
On our drive to Samode, the landscape would change to more pure countryside and more desert-like vegetationá more rocks, more sand, more camels and even an elephant or two.
We go by villages like ghost towns with just a few inhabitants peeking out from their windows and doors. We arrive at old city walls and grand gates with a hint of hand painting and can already feel the specialness. Winding up the stone drive with monkeys and cows and poopá we enter paradise. Samode Palace is a 3-tiered complex with inner courtyards and alcoves and fountains. Utterly charmingá the hand painted decoration is everywhere along with marble and tile. The kids immediately start running from room to room to hallway and come back with wonderful tales of opulence like we have never seen anywhere. Whole mirrored mosaic banquet rooms with painted hunting scenes and some rooms in pastel turquoise and white floral designs on every square inch from floor to ceiling with durrie carpets to match and chandeliers that use to be oil lamps but now wired for electricity. There is even silver furniture. It is such a sensory overload for my artistic soul. We are so happy to get a 2 bedroom ‘apartment’ right by the gate so we can see every night the pomp and circumstance for all the guest. Decorated camels and lit torches welcome you as you climb the rolled out red carpet, receive a flower marigold necklace and get the red dot on the forehead as you listen to flute and drum. The faade is instantly lit by a thousand twinkling lights and followed by fireworks galore. You enter the second courtyard where costumed children in gold green and red and turbaned dance around in circles and wiggle their eyebrows at you with a big smile. There is also a puppet show where we bought fun puppets to bring home. Then you are escorted to a buffet. It is truly magical. There is the most beautiful new swimming pool built of marble and inlaid with flowers with fountains and streams of tile all along the edge where the kids had a blast. Most tourist stay one night. We called up our travel agent and cancelled the next two cities to stay 5 nights. The staff thought we were ambassadors who lived in Delhiá for what other reason would you stays so long.
We left by camel cart after a fabulous rest to go the Bagh, also owned by the maharaja and the gardens have been restored and you stay in luxury tents, the likes of which none of us had ever seen. This is ecotourism at its very bestá it gives camping a whole other name. The staff was so friendlyá the tents have floral patterns all over the walls, real beds, wall to wall carpets, lamps, even a heater and real baths that are built into the original walls of the bagh and back into the back of the tents. Every luxury down to a beautiful dinner on the patio by bonfire and at the end of the evening you receive your own hot water bottle to keep your toes warm at night!!! WOW – what a life! We wandered the gardens catching peacock feathers, played badminton and had a great family time. We could have stayed a month.
Vishnu and the Art of the Sell
I have very mixed emotions about India. At the end when I was riding on a camel, I just decided that India for Patty Simon is just too jolting for my sensitive soul. But I have to say it is so fascinating. I have read two books that have helped me understand India. “City of Joy” is probably the second best book I have every read. It so explains the caste system, how so many people from the country end up in the slums of the cities, the incredible obligatory life of a Hindu, the incredible endurance these people have to beat all odds of survival. I was truly humbled in so many ways. It is by a Frenchmen Dominique LaPierre. Once you pick it up, you cannot put it down! The other book was “Desert Places” by Robyn Davidson (the women who had before driven her own camels across the deserts of Australia) and happened to want to do it in Rajasthan, Indiaá the very place that we were in so it was quite fun to share her frustrations, etc. She is a good writer so it makes for fun reading.
But, back to Vishnu, our newfound friend. One of the very hardest and exhausting parts of India is that you are “hassled” so much to buy something, change money, etc. Everyone is connected to everyone else and there are so many ulterior motives for befriending a tourist that one becomes very skeptical. I found that by the end of a few hours you just wanted to run back to your hotel and hide. As Dick called it, as we left the gates of Samode, “Well, it is time to run the gauntlet!” I began to notice that Alex would stay at the hotel with Ben more and more and Katie would hold my hand and hide behind me. Every child asked for rupees (money), bon bons (candy) or stylo (pencil – which we later found out they would sell to the store and get the money for it (not like Guatemala where they used them for school). The storekeepers push way past any limits of salesmanship I have ever seen. Men ask you for tips after they help youá they don’t wait quietly for you to give them something and they tell you if they don’t like how much you give them. Not one person helps you but 10 so poor Dick finally let them split the one bill of money. I like to sincerely connect with people when I travelá the local people and especially the children, but I found that I couldn’t because I was so put upon. I couldn’t make eye contact with them and so it really soured the experience for me. (That is not to say we still didn’t have great experiences with a lot of the people but you have to work hard and really get out in the middle of nowhere to find it!) The funniest time that had Dick laughing was when we arrived at Samode palace after a busy tiring day and one of the few young men who had a shop and had been harassing us everyday to look in their shop said to me, “You PROMISED you would come in and buy something today!” Well, I try very hard not to turn into the ‘ugly American’ but I blewá and said as controlled as I could, “I NEVER promised you that and it makes me very angry that you would say that to me!” The seller was taken a little by surprise and gave me a break for about 5 seconds. Dick got me to the room! I have to laugh now about it but this experience so illustrates how far they try to manipulate you!
Anyway, with all that said, one day we were able to get away from all the hustlers and walk down the street and find a great little store where they make and mold beautiful bangle braceletsá hundreds of colors and rhinestones and so prettyá Katie loved them. We are having so much fun videoing the process and getting to know the mother, daughter, father and brother who all work there and we bought a lot of them. All of a sudden, a very handsome Indian man, who seemed to be very soft spoken, began chatting with us, telling us he is the principal of the local elementary school. We are always interested in visiting schools with our kids so we accepted when he than invited us for tea back to his home he shares with his parents, sister, wife and grandchildren. (At this point, I am embarrassed to say, but I become skeptical and whisper to Dick that there is a “sale” developing somehow. I am proud to say that I was correct but I would not know immediately. This guy was smooth!) Dick is touched that this man is taking such a friendly interest in us. We enjoy seeing how an upper-caste Samodian lives. We noticed a telephone in his house and he told us his brother had just been elected to Parliament. We were impressed. We make plans to meet the next day with the kids to visit the school and say goodbye but I notice that he insists on walking us all the way back to the gate of the palace (once again, so no one else can hustle us and take a sale away from him!). We enjoy the school visit and were quite impressed at how well the children read and speak English. We ask several times if there are any supplies that we could send him and once again I became skeptical as the only thing he says he needs is money. After our visit, he invites us back to his house. Now the selling is about to begin and we are trapped. He quietly tells us that all the other miniature paintings that are sold are not credible and casually tells us that his sister, who is not there at the present time, does her own painting and would we like to see them. By this time, we feel very committed and say yes. Well, the prices are 3 to 4 times the amount of the other shops! It’s like fishingá in a matter of 3 days he had caught and trapped us in this obligatory posture. We bought a few at almost asking price. He was so smooth! It was incredible. This is India!
How do we describe our last stop, which was supposed to be our first stop for the camel fair. It was incredible. You feel you are in the middle of nowhere, very far away from anywhereá you conjure up images of the ancient trading caravans roaming thru the desert. It was desert,.. raw, hot, uncompromising (a lot like West Texas or Arizona with an exotic flair!) There is an ancient fort on the only hill around that the dawn and dusk golden light turns into gold. The fort is totally inhabited so when you wander thru the windy lanes, you feel as if you could be seeing what life was like hundreds of years ago. It was not overpopulated and not many cars so no pollution which was so refreshing. I kept telling all the locals they were so lucky to live here and not other big cities in India. You are close to Pakistan so you get a lot of army influence. I had a lot of fun with Katie sitting under an old arch of the city smelling buying perfumes and little bottles with a local vendor that also sold rat poisoning (interesting combination!) We took a 2-day/1 night camel safari with luxury tents set on a sand dune like Lawrence of Arabia. Sunset, moon, falling stars, silhouettes of the camels all made for an enchanting time. A camel is fascinating. It is tall, highly decorated with all sorts of mirrored fabrics and tassels. The sit on their knees so you can get on and then their back end goes up and then their front, which has you in a very slanting position. You hold on for dear life. Trotting is smoother then walking which is fairly jolting so 2 days is probably enough to get the experience. Ben was in the lead and looked so cute being so little on such a big animal. Katie had a lot of fun visiting and joking with her guide. I even found I could read on the trek. Dick thought that was funny but of course he was using his Dictaphone to say his journal as we went along. Alex said he liked camels more than horses as he thought they felt safer. We loved it and it was fun to go to tiny villages, meet the people, watch rock being broken by hand and carried in baskets to sell, visit Brahmin cemeteries and count how many wives died by fire with their deceased husbands. This was a great way to end India. Tomorrow, a short flight to Delhi and than on to Kathmandu!
Well, our last day in India ironically started like our first day in Indiaá our flight got cancelled in Jaisalmir. We were in trouble because the next flight is in 2 days and you know it is full and could also be cancelled. We were to meet friends in Nepal and needed to get there and also, I hate to admit this but I really wanted to leave. I needed to get away and recharge. Well, what to doá we could take a bus for 20 hours, we could wait 2 days, or we could drive 4 hours to the nearest town and take our chances on a second-class train all night to Delhi and hope we can get a flight out. We run to the travel agent and find out all the flights from Delhi are full and we cannot get a confirmed reservation for 5 whole days. Now, we are worried about getting out of India in time to make our flight to Bhutan (which we have paid a fortune for and did not want to miss). We decide the best course of action is to keep moving closer and closer to Delhi. This proved to be very smart but at the time remember we could not get any positive information so by this time I am just trying to hang on and get from place to place. We end up with the craziest driver we have had in India so I really thought our life was at risk. For those who know me, you know that I do not get that nervous. This guy was a maniac. Going 90 miles an hour with no shoulder and herds of cows, goats and sheep, not to mention children, bikes, overloaded trucks and peacocks and dogs on the road was a nightmare. As I am holding on to all my children (no seat belts, by the way!) and holding on to Dick, I am so happy to get to Jodhpur. We eat dinner in a very nice hotel. All I wanted to do was check in but Dick said to go on. We arrive at the trainá something out of Dante’s Inferno, beggars, crippled children, hoards of people, filth, people sleeping everywhere and the Simon family with too much luggage, 4 porters and a second-class ticketá there is no first class! I wish everyone could have seen my face. I am a positive person but my heart sank as I am carrying sleeping Ben (now it is midnight, we started this escapade at 9 am) to our bunk beds, no curtains, tons of people and all our luggage. Our bunks are not all together. I almost got off that trainá I kept imagining we would stay up all night, crying grumpy children, no privacyá Ugh! Well, it got betterá thank God. I managed to get all the luggage up on the top bunk. I slept with little Ben. Katie was above. Alex was around the corner and managed to befriend a bunch of Indian young men playing “Back Street Boys’ on their radio. Dick was at the other end, which was nice to get away from us, but he was by the door that banged all night. We slept better than expected, befriended a really nice German couple and got to see the countryside the next morning and the slums of Delhi. Our adventure was not at all over because we found out from our travel agent that we were in luck. The flight that night was delayed and would leave at 1:30 in the morning so people would cancel and that would be our only chance to get out of here. So, we checked into the Radisson by the airportá watched two videos, ate, took a bath and dragged the kids back to wait from 9 PM to 1:30 AM to see if we cleared the wait list. Well, with patience and a slight bribe to the ticket agent, we got on. I would not recommend doing this every with kids. Poor thingsá every time we sat down to wait for tickets, immigration, security, and boardingá they would each fall asleep which means we had to wake them up 5 times as we could not carry everyone. But, we got on that plane and were very happy and arrived into Kathmandu at 4 AM. Needless to say, we were totally exhausted. It has taken a week to recover but as I am writing this we are off to Bhutan tomorrow. Ah, the trials of traveling.