Couple finds India is a feast for the senses
May 22, 2013
By Alan Wills, 12-time traveler, Calabasas, California
An adventure named Heart of India seemed like the perfect way to celebrate my 50th anniversary with my wife Norma—and I was right.
I get my first glimpse of how mystical our trip to India will be on the airplane. I am greeted by an attendant who greets us in the prayer position and wishes Norma and me “namaste,” which we learn translates to “I greet the God within you.”
Driving from the Delhi airport, it is obvious we are entering a land with four times the population of the U.S., in a country just one-third the size. New Yorkers don’t even touch their horns compared to the cacophony of horns we hear from every vehicle. We see rickshaw bicycles carrying two to four people, tuk-tuks (motorized three-wheelers) with as many as eight crammed in and hanging on. Overloaded regular bicycles carry everything imaginable from produce to planks of wood. Motorbikes are everywhere, weaving in and out of traffic, often carrying a family of four plus chickens, packages, and even a goat. Women in saris ride sidesaddle without helmets. Trucks are ornately decorated, also usually overloaded. Our bus has a driver’s assistant whose job is to guide the driver through gaps with just a half-inch to spare on either side. Red traffic lights are a mere suggestion.
Compared to traffic in India, U.S. drivers have it easy!
This atmosphere is in the country, too—but add holy cows and Brahma bulls wandering aimlessly across the road, with families of sheep, pigs and goats on either side. In addition to cars, trucks, and buses, now there are tractors and farms.
We are very fortunate to be at the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi on the very day of the anniversary of his assassination. There are flowers everywhere and hundreds of devoted followers; he was truly loved. The Hindu radical who shot Gandhi disagreed with letting Muslims into India.
Mahatma Gandhi's tomb, Raj Ghat.
Religion is very important to Indians, and there are Hindu temples everywhere. Every day Hindus place offerings of food and flowers on these shrines. We were told “many of the Gods Hindus pray to have multiple names: There’s a monkey God; The Elephant God, Ganesh, has many different names and statues, and is the son of Shiva; Lord Shiva became associated with destruction, sometimes fulfilling the role of Destroyer along with Vishnu (the Preserver) and Brahma (the Creator) and sometimes embodying all three roles within himself.”
I love the Indian people—they are peaceful and gentle, and value religion, family, and education. Many of the marriages are arranged by the families, and from what I can gather, work well. We learn families can take more than a year of investigation and consideration to determine if a couple is suitable for marriage. Indian weddings often go on for days; with the bride wearing many different beautiful saris.
An Indian woman dressed the ladies in our group saris at our Farewell Dinner—they looked beautiful!
There is still a caste system in India. The family always arranges a marriage between a man and a woman within the same caste. Love marriages can be of people of different casts—however, the children are considered of the lower caste. People are asked their caste classification on work applications, such a foreign concept to Americans.
Our trip included visiting six UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Many were palaces and forts built by the Mongol invaders in the twelfth and 13th century, and are still in excellent condition, including Qutab Minar.
We saw a snake-charmer playing a flute, followed by a large viper coming out of a basket. When crossing a river we saw a large gypsy tent encampment, a world of difference compared to Los Angeles.
We stayed in a palace fashioned after a Maharaja’s Palace, massive and very grand. At Ranthambore Game Reserve, we're lucky enough to see a tiger, something
that is quite rare, as there are only a thousand Bengal tigers in the wild.
A rare sighting of a bengal tiger in its natural habitat.
The high point of our trip was the Taj Mahal. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal to enshrine her remains. It took 2,000 workers ten years to complete, using translucent white marble with inlaid semi-precious stones in beautiful patterns. During sunset and sunrise, the Taj changes color and glows. It is a very romantic tribute to the woman he loved. It is truly a Wonder of the World.
Norma and I at the Taj Mahal.
Norma took a hot-air balloon ride over Jaipur to see the Amber Fort and the Pink City, and a plane flight over the Himalayas to see 29,029-foot Mount Everest on our post-trip extension to Kathmandu, Nepal. Both trips required getting up at 5:30am, and I preferred to sleep in. Most days were twelve hours of sightseeing and education, and involved lots of hiking and climbing.
We visited the temples at Khajuraho with hundreds of beautifully carved stone statues on the inside and outside of the temples. The Hindu Gods are represented in their many forms, plus many erotic statues as in the Kama Sutra. These carvings represent the important role of love in the Hindu religion.
Some of the erotic carvings from the ninth-century temples in Khajuraho, where the Kama Sutra originated.
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world with its history going back 4,000 years. Varanasi is the Hindus’ religious capital and Hindus consider the River Ganges very holy. At daybreak, we watched Hindus worship the sun coming up by removing their clothes on the steps, then washing and dunking in the Ganges.
Our trip was extremely diversified. We slept in tents and rode camels. We rode on bike rickshaws, a trailer pulled by a water-pump-driven vehicle, a train, planes, and a tour bus. Driving through the countryside, we saw a wedding and crashed the party. We ate street food, and the other extreme: banquet food from silver trays. At an English officers club, we drank moonshine and watched Indian dances.
Another highlight for me was a Home-Hosted Dinner with an Indian family. Our questions have no limits and I discovered how a middle-class family lives. Servants are very inexpensive, so working-class people always have help in the home. Our hosts told us they don’t like President Obama because he has never visited India, and we learn that education is of prime importance, because Indians realize it’s the stepping stone to a better and more productive life. We discovered women have been elevated in Indian society and are almost equal to men.
We flew to Kathmandu, Nepal, for our post-trip extension. We spent five days touring in the shadow of the Himalayas—an unforgettable experience and vista.
A 21-year-old Nepalese girl of about 100 pounds climbed Mount Everest twice in eleven days. She came to our hotel and showed us pictures of her climb. I hadn’t realized before that it takes over a month to get acclimated to the altitude at the base camp. Then they spend days and nights at each of four camps up Everest and always return to the lower camp. Their time at the peak of Everest's 29,029 feet is a mere ten minutes because of limited oxygen.
Patan Durbar Square, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the most interesting parts of Katmandu. At a temple in the square, we witnessed a goat being sacrificed. Next door was a beautiful wedding.
We hiked down a mountain and through farm villages where we saw women spinning wool and making blankets, brewing onion seed oil, and distilling alcohol. I envy their simple life, until I learn the life expectancy of these farmers is less than 65 years. I am happy that in retirement, I am able to travel and see different parts of the world.
If you’d like to see what other travelers on our Heart of India trip have to say, check out this video featuring OAT travelers describing—in their own words—what made their experiences in India so memorable.