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Incredible India

Special Note: Adrian writes from her travels through India. Even though you may find these missives a bit long, we hope you enjoy traveling with her, as she views life on the other side of the planet from the point of view of an American, a European and a “Westerner.” She returns to Paris this week for more of La Vie Française.

Late Saturday night we boarded a sleeper car on a train headed for the ancient town of Sawai Modhopur. Not an extra seat was to be had. Our hostess stretched out pieces of fabrics to act as sheets on our berths so we could sleep the 1.5 hour ride. A friend of our host’s son traveled with us – a native of the city — whose family met us at the station (a beautiful long narrow building in peach and pink colors) at midnight to provide a car to drive to the edge of the 155 square mile Ranthambhore National Park. There we stayed in a cottage at a beautiful garden style inn till a 6 a.m. pick up by the safari jeep.

I awoke to a cold shower thanks to my own negligence to have failed to flip the water tank switch in advance. It is common that each bathroom has its own small tank, but it’s rarely kept on until needed. (Where was an old-fashioned It down poured overnight and continuous hot water “chaudière” when you needed one?!) I’ve come to learn to “shower” by using a two-bucket method of filling a large one with hot water and using the small one to pour water on my head and body. The floor fills with water and a large squeegee is used to scrape it down to a drain in the floor. I remember when first arriving in France, it seemed so strange that the French didn’t use shower curtains or a hook for the hand-held shower so one needed to learn how to scrub down with one hand while showering with the other trying desperately not to flood the whole room. This is yet more primitive and I’d now be thankful for the French method! Nonetheless, the people are clean and so I have been, too. In fact, we haven’t noticed hardly any bad body odor – much less than you might experience in France.

It down poured overnight and the jeep was open-roofed, so we suffered the light rain before dawn to trek into the lush forest hunting for sightings of tigers and other native creatures. The tiger population in India is suffering, but thanks to the 27 reserves of “Project Tiger,” the number has substantially grown. It was doubtful to spot them in this weather, nor did we, disappointedly, but we came across monkeys, crocodiles, parrots, owls, deer, reindeer, and a variety of other wildlife indigenous to the reserve as well as India’s second-largest Banyan tree, with spreading branches supported by its massive roots.

The sun came out upon our return later in the morning, we warmed and dried to take a breakfast in the garden at the inn before an excursion and hike up the hundreds of stone steps to the 10th-century Ranthambhore Fort and 8th-century Ganesha Temple. Hundreds of monkeys awaited us, climbing the ancient crumbling buildings, hanging from the Banyan trees and congregating over bunches of bananas (from whose feeding, we don’t know). One large male attacked our hostess for the candies she had purchased at the Temple, to which she gladly relinquished. At the temple, we left our shoes behind and waited in line to receive a blessing, a spot of color smudged on our foreheads, called a “bindi,” as is the tradition.

Before heading back to the train and Jaipur, we made a quick stop at the home of our host’s son’s friend, a large old sprawling house with a beautiful view of the city from the rooftops. The entire family lives in the one house, traditional for most Indian families. A feast was placed before us of by the mother and daughters who cooked the fresh home-made dishes then we were quickly sent on our way with gifts of bangle bracelets and cotton tops embroidered with flowers and little round mirrors. This is the norm – to be their guests and treated like royalty. We aren’t of the habit, to be waited on, adored and adorned, so we overly thanked them and took great pleasure in being so fortunate. As we maneuvered down the narrow main street of Sawai Modhupur, a spot few Westerners ever visit, we concluded that we could never have had the same experience if we had taken the typical tour and stayed in impersonal hotels.

Eating in India is as much a pleasurable diversity as is its people. The variety of foods is never-ending and the quality seems to be good everywhere we have been. Of course, the best meals have been in the homes, cooked in their own kitchens, where they can control the amount of oil used and ensure the freshest of ingredients. The high standard we’ve become accustomed to will make it difficult now to return to the restaurants at Passage Brady in Paris, which are mostly owned by Pakistanis, and likely a poor copy of the real thing right here in the Golden Triangle.

We trained back to Jaipur and rested the next morning before heading out on what our hosts said would be a “big plan” for the day. Little did we know what was in store for us. One stop was to the matriarch of a cousin’s gem stone manufacturing office where we watched them polish the stones and string beads. There was no leaving without gifts of almost twelve strands of amethyst, yellow opal, aquamarine and a host of other semi-precious stone necklaces. It was embarrassing for us, but we graciously accepted and vowed to visit their New York relatives in the same business.

Leaving Jaipur for the countryside, the chaotic city streets turned to lazy country lanes lined by farms and small market stalls. We visited another part of the family at their well-irrigated farm, drank chai tea under the shade of striped canvas awnings lounging on hemp woven beds. The matriarch of the family had a full head of long white hair, brown soft skin and light sparkling eyes. She gifted me with a red shawl of a Rajasthani print in red to match my eyeglasses. Again we felt embarrassed by their generosity and desire to welcome us.

They showed us the old house our hostess grew up in — only its old stone and brick walls left to imagine how it might have once been. Across the road was a field of marigolds, another of wheat, cows and goats. We visited more of their beautiful farm lands and introduced us to the tiny village where all their farm hands live. There, like the Pied Piper, Erica’s broad smile and imposing camera drew the entire village of old and young alike to see the Westerners and have their photos taken. Suddenly we were surrounded by dozens of people with smiling faces. She snapped many photos, and had to be torn away as they wouldn’t let her say goodbye too readily.

Returning to Jaipur, one last stop before heading home took us into the old city to our hostess’s father’s primary home and office. This is the man who was once Minister of Sports and other important posts. He had a funny sense of humor and was surrounded by his closest friends and associates in the old house, which houses the entire family. We met a son, a wife and several children. They would not let us leave without endowing even more gifts upon us and made us promise to return to India very soon.

Early in the morning we set off early by train to what would be a monumental day visiting Agra and the Taj Mahal. We vowed not to leave India without seeing this on of the 7 Wonders of the World, although it meant about 8 total hours on train to Agra and then from Agra to Delhi in one day…”no problem.” “No problem” is a phrase the Indians say continuously, meaning more “yes” than anything else. Nothing seems to be a problem, either…nothing too much hassle, nothing impossible to provide or do for you.

Not to be alone on our journey, our host, who has seen the Taj more times than he can count, wouldn’t have let us go without him. He has more family in Agra, where we could store our luggage, take meals and rest.

Agra is India’s worst example of a modern metropolis one you realize immediately as the train pulls into the station. The roads are lined in garbage, the odor is pungent and everything is dirty and poor. What a shame for all the arriving tourists to see Agra first before witnessing the beauty of this monument to a woman who died in childbirth of her 14th. Our host’s brother and his family live in a very old house there, above a plastics factory. Across the street sculptors were carving religious icons and tiles. Once again, we couldn’t leave without their gifts – one was a plastic replica of the Taj Mahal that lights up red!

A motorized rickshaw took us to the gate, then we walked in dodging the many beggars and sellers of trinkets. Entry is very inexpensive for the locals – about 50 cents, but for foreigners, about $17. For 20 rupees, about 50 cents, our host insisted on hiring a guide to give us the history and point out some details. When you first enter though one of the main gates and see the structure for the first ti

me, you cannot help but be totally awestruck. It was a perfectly sunny warm day with blue skies and the white marble perfectly symmetrical mausoleum with its jeweled inlaid stone is clearly India’s grand jewel.

The Taj Mahal is a “mere” 350 years old. Funny to compare it with my 17th-century apartment of the same age and how much more important that seemed. The guide was filled with facts and anecdotes…a funny overbearing fellow who couldn’t wait to show Erica the best photographic spots and take some of the photos himself. Along the way, Erica was lightly harassed by a number of groups of men wanting photos taken with her! They showed off their official army I.D.’s and spoke of their importance. She was so good-natured about it, joking with them and having fun, that hundreds of photos must have been taken. We will never understand their fascination with Westerners, or why she drew such attention, but it was added fun all throughout our 12 days in India.

I write now from the Delhi office of our host, where we stayed overnight on a trundle bed and met more of the family…there is no end to the brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and cousins who we have come to know. It’s our last day before boarding our 1 a.m. Air France flight back to Paris…our last chance to shop in the bazaars and take a taste of India. We agree — now more than ready to return to our warm beds, hot long showers and esthetically beautiful Paris, but not without being changed in many ways.

India really is “incredible” as their tourist board promotes…in every way. We have come to appreciate the adage “money doesn’t buy happiness” as witnesses to an impoverished society who are generally so happy, loving and generous in spirit. It is a sharp contrast to the French who are stressed about being perfect in every way, a perfection they know they can never really achieve, but spend their lives striving for it. Here, there is no such thing as perfection or esthetics – something so frivolous in a world where so many don’t have even the most basic of needs. Even the very rich don’t live in what we know to be a very high standard, but they give what they have without reserve.

It is impossible not to compare, though, how a social democracy such as France, has provided so well for so many – how the quality of life and standard of living is so high for such a large percentage of its population…health care, housing, education…how the need to achieve that perfection has allowed for so much prosperity.

Will we view home in Paris in the same way as always when we step off the plane at Charles de Gaulle? Or will we appreciate it even more? I think so.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds

Editor, Parler Paris

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P.S. Erica has taken thousands of photos. More than what you see here have been posted on her site at http://www.ericasimone.com and there will be many more to come over the next few days and week.

 

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