Above, the gods must be crazy . . . or maybe just stoned. The Sadhus (Hindu holy men) who are disciples of Lord Shiva smoke a lot of weed. Drawing on a wall in Varanasi.
For us, this is a return to India after 6 years time. Between then and now, we have been through the Andes, driven the circumference of Sicily, explored the underground caves of the Viet Cong, celebrated the longest day of the year in Vilnius, gone scuba diving in the British Virgin Islands and done so many other things in so many other countries that when we gaze at screensaver pictures popping up on our computer culled from our photo file, it becomes a game of “where’s that place?” requiring all of our concentration just to get a nominal passing score.
And so, similar to our last time in Paris, we find ourselves seeing sights that are at once both familiar and unfamiliar, discovering what we missed the first time, what we had forgotten, what our memory recalled differently, plus discovering some new cities for the first time in the colorful State of Rajasthan.
On our first trip to India, we hadn't yet created Boomer Boarding Pass. This time, our blog post will have a different perspective, not only because this is a return trip for us but also because this time we are traveling with the first boomerboardingpass tour group which we organized, comprised of a group of 11 of us. Of the nine participants who joined the two of us, we only knew three of them ahead of time. The others all took a big leap of faith and decided to trust us and to let our friend, Sujay (possibly the greatest tour group leader that ever was, seriously), take us through Northern India on an extraordinary learning and discovery tour, exploring, eating, partying and shopping our way through the heart of India.
At our initial orientation meeting, Sujay asks us how we (besides Ellen and Bill) came to join the tour. What we heard repeatedly, in one way or another, was that the stars had somehow aligned and that it was just kismet, or karma, or providence that found them all in Delhi now. While each participant had their own unique reasons for joining our group, they all just knew that, one way or another, they had to come with us on this magical mystery tour. This meshed perfectly with Sujay’s method of conducting tours. Yes, we have to see the Taj Mahal and the amazing city of Varanasi and ride on camels and elephants, but he leaves much up to chance and karma and "the fates" to dictate our actual day-to-day itinerary.
Day 1, still bleary-eyed from our 20+ hour flights, Sujay takes us on a walk through the Delhi neighborhood by our hotel, located along "Embassy Row" — a neighborhood that is quite an upgrade from the last time we were here in Delhi. This exclusive area has lots of tree-lined boulevards, parks, gated estates, and monkeys. Hmm. Ah, yes, we had forgotten all about the filthy and aggressive monkeys which are as common as pigeons in Delhi. We are certain that at least one of our group members will never forget the monkeys. While taking pictures of a baby monkey, she found herself positioned between the cute little one and the protective shrieking momma who chased her away, nearly biting her.
And the birds. We had forgotten about the tropical wildlife in the skies over Delhi. Ellen spots a Kingfisher with bright electric-blue feathers, while parrots flock overhead and nest in the crevices of monuments. At the mosque on top of the hill in Old Delhi, crows glide lazily in circles high above us. And at night, as we float in the swimming pool of the hotel, a nonstop stream of very large bats fly overhead like something out of the Wizard of Oz. Now that’s a new one for us.
One thing we hadn’t forgotten, but that was still a shock to witness again, is the sheer number of people compacted into this ancient walled city. It seems as if the population has grown by half again since 2013 when we were last here; the better part of them armed with cars, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, buses, and bicycles making each intersection, which are also usually littered with lazy "sacred" cows, a lawless, untamed, chaotic wild-west. Everyone likes to make their own lanes and use their horns, apparently under the belief that he who honks the loudest and most frequently has the right of way. Despite all of the honking and apparent absence of rules, the cars are relatively undented, and, amazingly, we don’t see the number of wrecks or body parts alongside the road that one would expect (although we do witness a few fender benders). Our driver explains to us that anyone who operates a car in India needs three things: a good heart (as in "strong of heart" vs. "kind-hearted"), good brakes, and good luck. Without all three they may as well be thrown into the abyss.
And then there’s the food. Cardamon and garlic and cumin and ginger and cilantro and chilies and curry and other spices we haven’t heard of before, together offering an intense rush of flavors with every bite of every new dish we eat. Sujay’s wife, Ratna, honors and spoils us with her expert cooking as we stay with them before the tour begins and again when she hosts the welcome dinner for the group. The hotel breakfast buffets do not disappoint either with their dosas, uttapams, and parathas that we had looked forward to eating again plus some new dishes that are hard to resist sampling, despite our recent switch to a mostly vegan/no-oil diet. We aren’t sure how every member of our group is dealing with all of these Indian flavors, but at least a majority of them are definitely having as much excitement over this eating adventure as we had on our first trip here.
It’s hot. Very, very hot. Hot and sticky. The idea of sitting in a tour bus for hours may not sound great, but the air-conditioned drive to Agra is almost welcome compared to the humid 97 degree temperatures which we have been dealing with outside. From our hotel rooms, we can see Arjumand Banu Begum, sometimes referred to as the Taj Mahal. It stands out through the haze covering the city which grows thicker as a hot afternoon wind blows. When we board the bus to head to the Taj, rain begins falling, turning into a downpour by the time we get to the entrance gate. Somehow, everyone keeps their spirits up, and within half an hour, the rain has ended and it is a good 15 degrees cooler than it was before the storm. The sun plays upon the clouds making for a dramatic backdrop to this iconic mausoleum.
So, okay, what about the smells? They aren’t quite as overwhelming as we remember. On the plus side, there are the smells of street food—curries, deep-fried Pani Puri, caramelizing onions. Wisps of sandalwood and jasmine incense drift out from shops and street vendor's stalls. Of course, there are also those other smells, too. The smell of the sweating sea of humanity is one thing, but here we also share the street with our bovine friends and their very ample deposits. Those who are not careful to watch where they step, end up carrying the smells of the street home with them. In the mornings and evenings, the smell of burning garbage permeates the air and assaults our nostrils. We are all grateful for our well sealed air-conditioned rooms at the end of each long day.
And then there are the colors. Luckily, there is no restraint in the use of color. Careful coordination of hue and shade, the harmonious matching of colors to produce a subtle palette, the delicate blending of complementary tints and shades from a meticulously selected color scheme: in advertisements, in clothing, housewares, artwork, architecture — any subtlety goes out the window in favor of a “more-is-better” aesthetic. The colors are magical. On the ghats in Varanasi, we find ourselves surrounded by a group of female pilgrims, each of them dressed in a rainbow of hues that would put any rainbow to shame. Practically every hotel lobby uses lots of gold and silver embellishments to accent their otherwise perplexing choice of colors. And the shrines would make any Christian’s Christmas tree look drab and dreary.
The cacophony of colors, sounds, smells and sights astound and assault us whenever we leave our hotels, and after each long day of touring, we come back to our rooms at night welcoming the serenity. Is it any wonder that this is the birthplace of meditation? An environment like this requires some serious down time at the end of each day.
Also, there’s the staggering growth. Our group arrived after Ellen and Bill’s drive through the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon where Sujay showed us the huge modern city that had popped up since our last visit and that is still continuing to burgeon as evidenced by the cranes everywhere on the horizon. Modern skyscrapers with creative design vie with luxury condominiums just about a 15-minute drive away from Sujay’s home. Meanwhile, beneath the maze of towers, the street scene is similar to the rest of urban India, barely controlled cow chaos with cars, people, bicycle and auto rickshaws, food stalls, street vendors, and garbage all competing for space on the ground. Unfortunately, we were too jet lagged to think of taking photos, but the contrast of this urban growth above on the foundation of chaos below will be one of our most prominent memories.
Unlike our previous tour group travels, our little group has proven to be much more cohesive, fun and adventurous with some participants even driving auto rickshaws, bathing in the Ganges, getter their hair cut at a locals barber shop, and sampling random eateries not on the tourist track. It’s hard to fault their total trust. While we are certain that India has the same percentage of assholes as any other country, those we meet along the way are almost universally good-natured, friendly, and kind. Photos of ourselves are now on the memory cards of dozens of Indian’s cell phones and cameras as they stop us often to have their pictures taken with us foreigners.
And finally, there’s the cows. Everywhere, the cows. Blocking store fronts, blocking walkways, blocking streets and highways, and worst of all, blocking us. The missed photo-op that we so greatly regret, is a cow climbing onto an empty traffic cop's stand in the middle of a busy intersection, presumably in an attempt to direct traffic where the humans have utterly failed. The other missed shot was of a cow sauntering into a store as if she were going shopping. Of course, the cows are not solely to blame for the chaos. Other obstacles our driver must constantly avoid include dogs, pigs, camels, donkeys and elephants.
As we say our goodbyes to the others in our group, we wonder what their stories of India will be. With it’s exploding population and the continuous sensory overload, we were shocked the first time we visited. This time, we knew what to expect and were more prepared to have our minds blown. Of one thing we are certain: we are getting a glimpse of where the world is headed. India looms large as one of the most exotic journeys in all of our travels.