India was the last place on earth I wanted to visit the very first time I went there. I was on a one-year trip around the world and India was cheap so I went reluctantly. It didn't help that in the very first afternoon of my arrival a large, grey ugly rat greeted me in the shower in the $10-a-night "hotel" in Bombay where I was staying. After three months, I was glad to leave, tired of the poverty, the beggars, the noise and the tongue-burning spicy food.
In a letter home I wrote: "India is a country with too many people, too many cows, too many customs and too many Gods."
About a year after I left, India began to draw me back. Perhaps nostalgia had settled in and blunted the sharp edges of my memories. I wanted to look out a train window again to see flooded rice fields, men dressed in white loincloths guiding bullocks by their tails, women in brilliant-colored saris whipping clothes against rocks in the river. I may have been miserable in India, but I was never bored.
India Never Disappoints
Three years later I was back for a two-month sojourn. The grand palaces, Hindu temples, and mysterious caves covered with paintings and sculptures were just part of the reason I wanted to return. The other is difficult to explain. Perhaps it is because India is a 24-hour spectacle. There is literally never a dull moment. Every other country, no matter how beautiful or exotic, seems sedate and dull in comparison. In India you are overwhelmed by scenes, sights, sounds and smells. In the cities everyone is running, bustling, moving. The street is a river of taxis and rickshaws. Beautiful women in saris walk past families sleeping in the street among pushcarts loaded with spicy delicacies. Near the post office there is a long line of stalls occupied by men who write letters on old typewriters for illiterates. On another street there is a long line of stalls with barbers who give people a shave right on the street. It is an amazing country, a country of extremes.
Back again for the third time
Recently I went back for my third trip, with a twenty-three year gap in-between. I was in my twenties during my first two trips, an adventurer, backpacking my way through Asia. I remember looking down on the middle-aged travelers in their air-conditioned first-class hotels and their air-conditioned busses. They were tourists while I was a traveler. I scoffed at their ambition to see India in two weeks.
Alas, now I was going to be one of them. I had booked a two-week trip with my friend, Hana, who had never been to India. At first she was game to backpack and stay in cheap hotels and travel by trains. But it didn't take me long to realize how absurd it was to try and relive my youth in a two-week trip. We arranged for a self-organized tour where a car (air-conditioned) with a driver and guide would meet us at every airport. We pre-booked hotels (air-conditioned). We arranged the entire trip with Paradise Holidays India of New Delhi, which proved reliable and kept every promise. When we ended the trip in New Delhi, the agency's owner, Hemant Gupta, invited us to his house for tea.
The Taj Mahal, cold marble, alive and warm
Since it was Hana's first trip, we could not skip places like the Taj Mahal, which I had already seen twice. But even if you have seen dozens of photographs of the Taj Mahal, and seen it for yourself, you're still not prepared for the vision that greets your eyes. Cold marble, alive and warm from the strong afternoon sun, draws you toward it like a child to a white frosted birthday cake. It is truly a wonder of the world, perfect, symmetrical, majestic. The very first time I saw it, I wondered who gets the credit for it. The emperor who built it as a memorial for his love? The Persian architect who was blinded so he would not be able to duplicate it? Or the 20,000 workers who labored at the emperor's decree for 20 years?
Udaipur a magical soft landing
We began the trip in Udaipur, a magical city around a lake in the Rajasthan area, a soft landing for Hana. No need to shock her by starting in a place like Bombay. I found a beautiful hotel, the Jagat Niwas, painted all white and situated right on Lake Pichola with a view of the Lake Palace. It was built in the 17th century with the charm of local Mewar architecture. The beautifully-decorated rooms are situated around a central courtyard and breakfast is served in a wonderful dining room facing the lake. At around $52 it is a real bargain. Ironically, as a young traveler, I could have never afforded to stay there. Maybe being a middle-aged traveler has its advantages. The next morning the driver and tour guide came to pick us up at the hotel and take us to see the sights. When you only have two days in a place it helps to have such an arrangement. It saves time and energy.
The next evening we took a night train to Jaipur in an air-conditioned sleeper. Yes, this was more like the good old days. I savored the noise, the discomfort, the inability to get comfortable and the lack of sleep. Oh, to be young again.
Jaipur-the pink city, but which shade?
Jaipur is known as the Pink City where all the buildings, palaces and forts in the walled section of this desert town were color-coordinated over 100 years ago by the resident Maharaja. While we were there, I picked up a copy of the Rajasthan section of the Times of India and read that the local government had decided that Jaipur has too many shades of pink and is determined to give it a uniform look. A committee is to decide exactly what shade of pink is to be used. The former Maharani of Jaipur advised that it should have some terracotta in it.
In Jaipur we stayed at the Hotel Madhuban, another heritage hotel decorated in authentic style and owned by a Maharaja. It is a beautiful oasis of calm about a ten minute drive from the bustling center.
I found myself again on elephant back going up to the Amber Fort, the original palace of the local rulers built in the 17th century high on a hill overlooking a lake. The towers, and domes and halls decorated with panels of alabaster with fine inlay make you feel like you are in a fairy tale.
On this trip I got to see some places that I missed on my other two trips, namely Khajuraho, with its temples covered with erotic sculptures, Orchha, a medieval city where grandeur has been captured in stone, and Sarnath, where Buddha delivered his first sermon after he became the "enlightened one."
Modernity has not yet caught up with India once you get out of the cities into the countryside. India is still a 24-hour exotic carnival and there is still never a dull moment.
And it is already drawing me back for another visit.