October 18, 2020

India: The Great 40ᵗʰ Reunion Sightseeing Adventure

Asia ›   India ›  

By Mac C. From New York, USA

Travel Stimulus Check Entry # 4 of 5

Four months after our 40th class reunion, one classmate contacted 5 of us and said, "While here, you all told me that you had wanted to visit India, but never had. My wife and I would like to guide you there." What an offer!! But, what a risk! We hadn't spent time together in 40 years save one recent weekend, our partners had never laid eyes on one another, and our hosts were proposing to take 10 retired, relative strangers to India for a month. What could possibly go wrong???

Everyone immediately said, 'YES!'

Our host, a native of Calcutta, and his wife, a native of Mumbai, had also never undertaken such a project. Despite any misgivings, they persevered, and over the ensuing year, put together the most amazing and ambitious itinerary for a month-long journey – with no detail left out. We would travel from Delhi in the north to Kerala in the south, with many stops in between.

We met in Delhi from 5 separate geographic locations. After a welcome breakfast and introductory lecture (one of many to come), we had some basic idea of what we were in for.  

With a population of about 1.3 billion people, a child is born in India every 2 seconds. There are 29 States and 7 Territories, and they are all very different, with different languages and customs. We were in for a whirlwind trip through many of them and can only share a few of the hundreds of highlights of the trip.

A few days in Delhi let us experience the grandeur of the city by day and night. With no time to lose, we hit the streets. Inside the Red Fort, we started to get accustomed to the scale of things we would see in the coming days – big. Very big.

It was the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, and the park and monument to him were humbling. A black marble slab memorializes him with an eternal flame on the top and the words “Oh God” in Hindi on the side - the last words he spoke after he was shot just outside his house in 1948.

One of the unforgettable highlights of the whole trip was a topsy-turvy wild ride through the markets in tuk-tuks. The market area is enormous and packed cheek by jowl with vendors, customers, and goods in transit via every means of conveyance imaginable. Despite the congestion, everyone was quite cheerful. We only saw the spice, paper goods, and wedding supplies "districts." Wedding supplies are a multi-million dollar trade, as are (seemingly) tiny spice shops who do the majority of their business online. We tried to drink in as much atmosphere as we could.

For our next stop, we head East to another corner of the golden triangle in Rajasthan. At Agra, we visited the Taj Mahal – a monument that many of us felt was ‘the prettiest thing we’d ever seen.’ After an extensive restoration, it looks new, and one cannot stop looking at it from every angle. This tribute to love is a true wonder.

From the first glimpse Until sunset, when the semi-precious stones begin to sparkle all over in the fading sun…..Being there was a thrill.

The Amber Fort and the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, the Pink City, were two more impressive structures – both ages old and well preserved with enormous, ornate carving and decoration. Plenty of mirrors and stained glass throughout, with wonderful vistas of the city beyond, were seen.

From the primitive to the advanced – we stopped at the Jantar Mantar Observatory - a collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments built in 1734, but which could easily have been built yesterday, in appearance and science. It features the world's largest stone sundial and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

From Jaipur, we headed out west to the "Golden City" on the edge of the desert. The imposing Jaisalmer Fort takes a full day, visiting palaces and more temples within its vast walls. The Patwon Ji Ki Havelis area - five intricately carved homes formerly belonging to wealthy merchants-was a wonder. One has been completely restored and is open to visitors.
(houses Jaisalmer)

The scenery completely changed as we left Jaisalmer and rode out to the Damodra Desert Camp. We enjoyed a camel ride at sunset and played at dune surfing – quite fun and easy to learn with a soft landing!

Dusting ourselves off, we headed south to Udaipur, "The City of Lakes." The City Palace was built over a period of nearly 400 years, with contributions from several rulers of the Mewar dynasty, starting in 1553. Inside are 11 ‘small’ palaces built of granite and marble, small being a relative term. It is perhaps the largest structure I have ever been in. Because is was built over a 400 year period, there are many styles of architecture to be found. In general, doors are short, and hallways narrow to slow and confuse any possible intruder. One famous mogul was known for disguising his horse as an elephant to not look weaker than his enemy.

From Udaipur, we continued south as the temperatures rose, and the scenery became more verdant; we entered Kerala, the most restful part of the trip. Still, there was an abundance of activity, including visits to an elephant sanctuary, the Pongala Festival Eve celebrations, riverboat cruises, and some yoga and ayurvedic treatments to prepare us for the final onslaught of Mumbai.

One fun memory was when my husband tried to mail a package from the local post office on the day of the Festival of Pongala – an annual festival where 3,500,000 (yes, million!) women congregate from all over India.   As a result, the local post-mistress was off at the festival and had left her brother in charge. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to process a package for Europe, and so put my husband on the back of his motorbike to drive to the nearest branch where someone did know. Mission accomplished! This was typical of the kind and over-the-top service we got wherever we went.

Our final stop was Mumbai, which wasn’t as overwhelming as it might have been at the beginning of our trip. By now, we were well acclimated. We enjoyed so much wonderful food in every city, but had a very memorable thali meal consisting of a dozen individual dishes at one of the best known local places, with the owner explaining each dish, even showing us the raw ingredients for each. There were two rounds of all these small plates - and there were seconds for anyone who could manage them. As if!

With our whirlwind tour of India complete, there were many emotions, most of all, the unspoken gratitude we felt to our hosts who managed to fit what seemed like a one-year trip into a one-month timeframe – without any casualties along the way. It was as though we had been taken around on a magic carpet – driven by two people who both know and love India to its core.

Only one word comes close to describing India, and that is ‘kaleidoscope.’ The whole experience of this wonderful country is an assault on all the senses and more. The sights, sounds, colors, smells, and experiences all set to the traffic, and human interaction music is unforgettable. We experienced universal cordiality and politeness. We have made fast friends for life, having ‘taken a chance’ on this invitation. We can only thoroughly agree with the slogan – Incredible India!