When Mama announced last fall that she didn't plan to renew her US passport because of a shortage of traveling companions, I blurted out, "Well, Mama, pick anyplace in the world that you want to go and I'll go with you." I fantasized of traveling to Portugal, Peru, or possibly Paris.
Then the letter came. It began, "Kathryn Mae, if you're serious, the country I most wish to visit is India." Mama, a retired history teacher, had enjoyed teaching units on India. "In addition," Mama continued, "I've always dreamed of seeing the Taj Mahal."
The die was cast. To psyche myself up for the trip, I visited the library for reading material and the health department for inoculations. Thanks to the Internet, I discovered that Elderhostel offered a 19-day Northern India study tour. Mama and I called in the nick of time and got the last two openings.
We flew to New Delhi on March 19. Our Indian itinerary took us through Rajastan to Jaipur; then to Agra, the city of the Taj; to Khajuraho; to Varanasi, the Holy City of the Hindus and the birthplace of Buddhism; and back to New Delhi. Nothing we had read, heard, or thought we knew adequately prepared us for this great adventure. Nor is it possible, in a couple of columns, to do justice to this vast country, its ancient history, and its diverse peoples. As with any trip, the longer we stayed there, the more we realized there was to learn. But I'll seek to give some personal impressions of a country few Americans are privileged to visit.
We had been told the number of people would surprise us. Sure enough, when our bus set out through the boulevards of New Delhi, it was not the cows and goats in the passing lane that shocked us - it was the sea of people living, working, and traveling the streets. India has over 900 million people, with population growth perhaps its greatest challenge. As far as the eye could see, in almost every direction in the cities, there were people.
Yet most of India, up to 80%, lives in rural villages and is involved in agriculture. We were there during the harvesting of the winter wheat crop. The harvesting was being done primarily by hand, by women in beautiful hot pink, lemon yellow, turquoise, and orange saris who cut the wheat, bundled it, hauled the bundles on their heads, and winnowed it by hand. We saw numerous tractors, but they appeared to be used more for transportation and hauling than for fieldwork.
In the Rajastan area, at the edge of the desert, I saw my first camel. Ultimately we would share the rural highway with camel carts, ox-drawn carts, tractors, more cows and goats, and goods carriers (trucks).
My farmer was most curious about the weather. "Hot, dry, sunny and getting hotter." Several days we ate lunch at outside villas with the temperature over 100 degrees. And this was spring. The summer brings even more heat, plus monsoons.
What most people have asked about, however, is the food. Where a southerner would throw in a chunk of fatback, a dollop of bacon lard, or a tablespoon of vegetable oil, an Indian chef would substitute 2 cups of curry, plus a half cup each of coriander, cumin, saffron, and other spices that you can read about in the encyclopedia. Though I sampled virtually every vegetarian, mutton, and chicken dish, I will confess to entertaining fantasies of a hot dog all the way, a chef's salad, and bait of fried okra.
"Delhi belly" didn't catch up with me until the last night. 27 of our group experienced this ailment. Only Mama and 2 men escaped it. This did not surprise my brother. "Mama, after all those years of eating old leftovers, your stomach was ready."
The Taj Mahal and other traveling adventures with Mama next week...
Mama and I got more than we bargained for when we signed up for 19 days in North India with Elderhostel. So it's hard to answer when folks ask, "What was the best part of your trip to India?"
A weekend in the country in the former palace of one of the Maharajahs was possibly my favorite. Here we were treated to a marionette show under the stars and an evening of folk dancing. Men from the village gave a turban-tying demonstration. For the women? Well, I wasn't about to turn down the opportunity to have my hands painted with henna! The grandson of the former Maharajah provided a lecture to help us understand this part of India's colonial history.
Getting to see the Taj Mahal would certainly rank as a highlight of our trip. We visited the Taj soon after sunrise, and thrilled to watch as the changing sunlight bounced off the beautiful white marble tomb. Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj as a tribute to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631. The architectural symmetry is a visual treat. The inside walls are covered with intricate marble inlays, using various semi-precious stones. We will forget many things about our trip to India, but not the Taj Mahal.
A morning boat ride on the Ganges River at Varanasi was another moving experience, but very difficult to capture in words. We had thought that jumping in the rowboat would give us temporary immunity from the hawkers, who followed us everywhere selling carved elephants, fake cobras, little Taj Majals in boxes, peacock fans, and elephant gods. No sooner did we row out on the Ganges than hawkers in canoes surrounded us! Though the hawkers were wearisome, nevertheless I was impressed with the industriousness of the people in a land where there are not enough jobs to go around.
The Ganges is a sacred river to the Hindus, and has for centuries attracted large numbers of pilgrims and worshippers. The riverbanks are covered with "ghats," which are broad concrete steps leading down to the water. A host of rituals take place daily on these ghats, including yoga, bathing, brushing teeth, laundering clothes, and procuring holy water. To take a holy bath in the River Ganges is an important spiritual goal for many Indians.
However, the most important rituals taking place on the ghats of the Ganges are the cremations of loved ones. The men of the family, led by the oldest son, oversee the cremation on a wooden pyre. The ashes are later dumped into the Ganges. We saw all of these activities firsthand from our boat. Many Hindus come to Varanasi to die. If their ashes can be placed in the Ganges, it is believed that this will help assure "moksha," which is freedom from birth and death.
I suppose, however, that I was most moved to visit Mahatma Gandhi Park in New Delhi. We were required to remove our shoes if we wished to walk out to the permanent memorial to this great world leader. Our shoes were safe, for volunteers immediately surfaced to guard our shoes for a few rupees.
India is still working to achieve many of the social and humanitarian reforms Gandhi envisioned.
Though we took too many pictures, it is the pictures in our hearts and minds that continue to challenge us. Which is, of course, the best part of our trip to India.
Because it cost a chunk to travel halfway around the world, I really tried hard to immerse myself in the culture of North India during the 3 weeks Mama and I traveled there. Not because I�m noble, but because Mama had taught: �Whatever you do, always get your money�s worth.�
As part of our Elderhostel experience in India, professors from local universities were invited to give us lectures on Indian culture, history, politics, religion, and the role of women. A key point, woven into all the presentations, was the theme of India�s tendencies toward tolerance, non-aggression, and acceptance of diversity.
Because some of their more important concepts don�t have English equivalents, the lectures introduced us to numerous Indian words.
Halfway through the first lecture, I realized I didn�t stand a Chinaman�s chance of ever assimilating much of India�s culture. For no sooner did the first Ph.D. spell out an Indian word than I started a special page in my notes, a page with this title: �Indian Words That Should Be in the Scrabble Dictionary.� Under the heading was a personal note to myself, �Cross reference these, then use these words to stomp your sisters.�
I�m sure the Indian lecturers were impressed with my diligence. Especially since 80% of my retired co-travelers were prone to doze off, or worse, in mid-lecture. (Mostly on account of �Delhi Belly,� that I have subsequently learned infected 29 out of the 30 in our group, Mama being the lone exception.)
However, the lecturers would be shocked if they were to learn what motivated my attentiveness. My secret? The third edition of the Scrabble dictionary (1995) includes widely used foreign words. If only I had brought my laptop computer, I could have checked these words out on my CD Scrabble Rom. But I had decided that for 3 weeks, I would tear myself away from the computer.
A severe case of jetlag notwithstanding, no sooner did I wake up on American soil than I pulled out my Indian notes and began compiling my �Beat Cynthia & Janice� list. At latest count, the list includes 136 new Scrabble words. They range from �ahimsa� to �dhurrie� to �sitar� to �tonga.� A great catch was �vakil,� which could conceivably be worth 48 points played on the right squares!
I wasn�t getting very Indianized by listening to the lectures because the competitive juices had kicked in. To compensate, I bought Mahatma Gandhi�s autobiography. I now have 3 books to read each morning: the Bible, the Gandhi autobiography, and the Scrabble Dictionary. Fortunately for me, Gandhi was fond of weaving in Indian words, such as �sahib,� �ayurvedah,� and �hartal.�
As an American, I am debating whether, in the spirit of Christian charity or Indian tolerance, I should e-mail the Scrabble list to my 2 sisters. Maybe an American compromise would work: send �em the words but not the definitions!
Travel forces us to face up to the ways culture turns us into square pegs. And it opens our eyes to other cultures that might at least soften our rough edges. I don�t know about you, but I�m still working on my karma.
You may have deduced from previous columns that the recent trip my mother and I made to India was an eye-opener. I�m still trying to digest not only the food but also our experiences in this distant land. In the New Delhi airport, I chatted with a native of India, who was returning to her home in the US. She agreed that India faces daunting challenges. �India�s greatest resource, however, is her people,� my new friend observed. I thought her comment truthful � and a very fitting conclusion to our Indian adventure. Those who wish more information about the adventure may either call for an appointment to see all 450 pictures, or can visit our website, which currently has 16 pictures. Take your choice. (Our address is http://www.hamrickcarriage.com.
Little did I know when Mama and I boarded the plane for the 24-hour trek back to North Carolina that I was fixing to undergo the granddaddy of all personality changes. I had packed away my red �Punjabi� (Indian pants and tunic) and had sworn off wearing the �bindi� (the red dot between your eyebrows.)
The family had been warned that the first bit of Americana we wanted was a hamburger. We fully expected that after a dose of American food and a good night�s sleep, life would pick up where we had left off. This is not how it has turned out.
Up until it struck me, I had secretly believed that jet lag was mere psycho-babble. However, our first night home, Mama woke us up by falling in the floor while sleepwalking, and I had the shakes. After resting 48 hours, I figured I was ready for The Office.
�We�re glad you�re back,� the office said. �Now jump on these 312 forms, reports, phone calls, faxes, and e-mails.�
It was hard to focus on forms after a night of dreaming Mama and I were being taunted in the village of the untouchables by a man chanting, �Monica Lewinsky, Monica Lewinsky.� (This was no dream � it actually happened. That was one day we were glad to jump on our rickshaws and get out of Dodge.)
The second week post-India, the farmer noticed that I still was not acting normal. After a lifetime of going to bed at 2 AM, I was turning in before 8:30 PM. BEFORE our final pot of coffee.
Of course, what happens when you go to bed with the chickens is that you have to get up with the rooster. I have seen more sunrises since my return from India than I have seen in a lifetime. Used to be that when I happened upon a sunrise, I would say, �Quick! Somebody go get the camera.� Now sunrises are becoming commonplace.
However, on my first 5 AM morning, I was a basket case. For 15 minutes I wandered around the house, trying to get a grip. Finally I asked the farmer, �OK, so I�m up. But what are you supposed to do at this hour of the morning?� He couldn�t believe that I just didn�t get it. �Why, you watch the weather, of course.�
I�m trying to get used to the new me. Ditto for the dog, who also has had to change his routines.
I had expected a few things in life would change as a result of our trip. My biological clock was not one of them.