Return to India
Almost 50 years ago, in the winter of 1972/73, I was on the Hippie Trail with my new husband. Into the second year of a multi-continent road trip, Tom and I drove overland, across Iran and Afghanistan, to explore the colors, sounds, and crowds of India. A green Volkswagen microbus served as both home and transportation. We parked overnight in Public Works Department gardens, surrounded by sand and palm trees in Goa, and in the concrete driveway of the Mumbai YMCA. We bounced along narrow twisting roads to Kathmandu and Kashmir. We drove beside the Ganges River, along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, and across dry desert plateaus.
But, as we crossed the drought-plagued lands north of Mumbai, I began to run a high fever and we changed our course. Tom insisted we go directly to New Delhi where we knew of a Western-educated doctor. Suddenly Rajasthan, once the home of the Rajput maharajas, was no longer on our route. Though my illness soon disappeared, our visas were expiring and we had no time to double back.
So, twenty-eight years later, when my sister mentioned that she wanted to visit India but none of her friends would join her, I responded immediately. "I'll go, as long as we can go to Rajasthan." Una was thrilled to have an experienced travel companion and soon we were making plans. We would travel with Elderhostel (now called Road Scholar) for two weeks, then plunge into India on our own for an additional ten days.
Of necessity, Una and I flew separately to India. When I landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport in January of 2001, I was alone. At ten o'clock at night, I found myself in a space that was dirty, noisy, crowded, confusing, and seemed to shout, "I am India. Remember me?" The expected hotel representative was not there to meet me. I would have to find my way on my own.
I shouldered my travel pack and trundled to an office that displayed a sign reading, "Pre-paid taxis". A tall, handsome Sikh stood behind the desk. I was reassured by his distinctive turban and neatly groomed beard, Sikh characteristics I had learned to trust in 1973. He nodded and smiled broadly when I told him the name of my hotel. He took my money and waved me toward the exit door.
Thankfully, he appeared again on the busy sidewalk crowded with touts waiting to accost tourists. He indicated a small, open, jeep-like vehicle at the front of the line of taxis. A slight, dark Indian with a woolen scarf wound around his neck loaded my bulky pack into the back of the jeep. Then another man appeared and jumped into the driver's seat while my Sikh helped me into the cramped back seat. I clearly repeated the name of the hotel several times and all three men nodded and smiled. The Sikh spoke to the driver in rapid-fire Hindi, or maybe it was Punjabi or Urdu, and we were off!
Once we left the terminal, the two-lane road, devoid of streetlights or buildings, was still crowded with small black cars, a few white luxury sedans, jitneys, and huge trucks. We zipped along, often squeezing between lumbering trucks and the center divider of broken concrete. The driver gleefully beeped his horn each time we began and succeeded at this maneuver.
In the intermittent glare of passing headlamps, I studied my driver. He was neat enough, slender, with greased, combed back hair and a well-trimmed mustache. He seemed friendly and curious in a way I knew to be typical. He asked if I was traveling alone, if I was single, and if my hotel was expensive. Beyond that, he concentrated on his driving.
After a while the traffic thinned and black night stretched out on both sides. Far in the distance, a few pinpoints of light glinted. There was nothing to suggest we were approaching a city. If I had not been familiar with the roads of India, I'm sure I would have been terrified. Even so, I couldn't help but think that I might soon find myself roughly deposited in the middle of a field, stripped of my luggage and my money, and left alone in the dark countryside. I clung to my seat, tried not to panic, and peered out the glass-less window.
We passed an army base, a Navy installation (very strange so far from any body of water), a few shops selling tandoori chickens and Bengali sweets, and occasional vendors who pushed their carts as they headed home at the end of a long day. Gradually, the shops and the traffic began to increase again. Now, the road filled with bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, and motor-scooters. The familiar sight of a helmeted, motor-scooter driver with a female passenger riding side-saddle on the rear brought back pleasant memories. The lady clung to her companion's waist, her sari flowing in the air currents.
We drove near a rubble-strewn construction site where a row of piers of rebar and concrete reached into the black night sky. My driver pointed at the tall structures. "Metro train," he said. I reasoned that a new metro train would only be built leading to Delhi, so we must be heading toward town. Perhaps I had escaped being kidnapped and stripped of my possessions.
Finally, the driver slowed down, pulled his jeep to the far left and waited for traffic to pass. Across the street, I saw one light, an old wall with a wide gate, and behind it, a white building. My driver found a gap in the traffic and drove through the gate into a paved courtyard. On one side of the courtyard, a man and a young woman, both elegantly dressed and draped in flower garlands, stood on a platform surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers. Not fancy enough for a wedding, I imagined it must be an engagement party. On the other side of the courtyard, a wide stairway led to open doors that overflowed with light and the sounds of music.
In the wood-paneled lobby, I was relieved to find a desk clerk who spoke fluent English and, best of all, had my name in his ledger! He showed me to a large room with a huge bed, a desk, a wooden wardrobe, a lumpy couch, and a spacious, tiled bathroom with an ample, old-fashioned tub.
It was after midnight and I was exhausted. I settled on the bed and reached for the phone to order tea from room service. My tired hand nudged the bedside lamp, which produced a shower of sparks. An instant later, all the lights near the bed and in the bathroom went black. I leaned back against the pillow, and sighed.
After 28 years, I was again in India. This time, rather than sharing a romantic adventure with my new husband, I was on a journey with my sister, who arrived the next morning. Our tour, named "Northern India, Crossroads of the World", began in earnest on the first day with a lecture on India's path to independence presented by a Gandhi scholar. Soon enough, we were in a comfortable bus taking in the sights of Delhi. Our first stop was the Red Fort, which Tom and I had visited years before. Though the fort remained impressive, I remembered it as more stunningly beautiful. Could it be that on my earlier visit, I looked at all things through the rosy lens of love and the adventure of a lifetime?
After two days in the capital, our group boarded a train and headed for Agra. I looked forward to seeing the Taj Mahal again and hoped it would live up to the beauty of my memories.
The first evening, our guide warned us that if the weather report was good, we would depart very early in the morning. When the pre-dawn call came, we bundled up in sweaters, boarded our bus, and minutes later entered the Taj Mahal garden through the wooden gates. In the pale light, we stood near the entrance, rubbed our icy hands together to warm them, and waited. We peered into thick, gray mist and glimpsed the shrouded form of one of the most famous tombs in the world. Gradually the mist lifted and the golden glow of sunrise revealed the Taj Mahal in all its glory. The reflecting pool shone silver in the pale light, with gardens on either side. Between "ooohs" and "aahs," we clicked our cameras and tried to capture the magical moment on film.
After viewing the gardens, we boarded the bus again. Our guide promised that this was only the beginning. "The best will come this evening," he said with a broad grin. I was familiar with the places we saw during the day, and, though as lovely as I remembered, none were as glorious as the Taj Mahal at sunrise. In the late afternoon, we all piled into seven matching white Morris Minor taxis.
Our string of small vehicles sped through the narrow alleys of old Agra, bumping and lurching over ruts and around trucks, tuk-tuks, cows, ox carts, and pedestrians. It felt like white-water rafting through humanity. We crossed the Jumna river on a narrow bridge, then headed between open fields to a village of low, thatched houses. The taxis slowed to a crawl in the dirt lanes of the village, honking at every turn and intersection. Finally, we stopped. Ahead stretched an expanse of hillocky, white sand, the river, and, on the other side, the Taj Mahal.
Dusk approached as we walked across the sand. We passed women carrying water jugs on their heads, tall, tied bundles of reeds, and rows of seedling watermelon vines planted in the river sand. In the distance, on the far shore, smoke and flames rose up from the cremation grounds. The mingled scents of burning wood and river damp filled the air. At the water's edge, we gazed across to the Taj, high on the far embankment. The white domes and minarets, gilded by the light of the setting sun, were reflected in the steel-blue water of the Jumna river. The color of the tomb shifted from gold to amber, from amber to mauve, and to the deep blue of evening. We wandered along the river bank as night descended and the heat of the day seeped out of the air. It was a truly extraordinary evening, more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, even during those romantic years when Tom and I traveled in a van.
After seeing the iconic sites of the classic Mogul emperors, our tour headed west to Rajasthan. The largest state in India, Rajasthan hugs the Pakistani border and largely consists of the inhospitable Thar Desert. But it is also known for its palaces and forts, its colorful fabrics and crafts, and the influence of Muslim culture. I envisioned it as the exotic land of Scheherazade.
We traveled along the same main road that Tom and I had driven on our way to Delhi in December of 1972. At that time, the two-lane highway had been undergoing improvements and I remembered the women who labored there. Dressed in long, full skirts, the bright colors dulled by dust, the women carried baskets of stones on their heads or squatted in the dirt as they broke rocks into small pieces with a hammer. Now the highway was broader and the pavement smooth, though the shoulder was still dry dirt, concrete rubble, or ditches filled with weeds.
The best feature of our bus, in my view, was a kind of "sidekick" folding bench on the left of the ample cab. For the entire afternoon, I reigned as queen of the jump-seat, sitting up front with the driver and the "door-man". From my perch, I had a clear view of the road ahead and on both sides. I wondered what I would see that was different from those earlier days...or if I would find it much the same. Outside the window, India was on display, the sights both exotic and familiar to me. I found myself transported back to that first trip and I felt the same excitement and wonder I had experienced when I was twenty-nine.
The road was heavily trafficked by trucks, black sedans, and carts pulled by tractors or plodding, long-legged camels. Loaded with anything from logs of Acacia wood to sacks of grain, the carts rolled along on large rubber truck tires, their drivers sitting on the front with one leg tucked under them and their loose, sarong-like dhotis pulled up to expose brown legs.
In small towns, men and women gathered at community water pumps. Women lifted their water-filled jugs or recycled cooking-oil tins gracefully to their heads to carry them home. At the end of the workday, men dressed only in a drenched dhoti bathed under the same taps. They lathered up and rinsed with buckets of water they dumped over their heads.
I was still enjoying my special seat when we entered the city of Jaipur. The bus climbed a narrow road lined with old buildings where court musicians used to play whenever the Maharaja arrived in the city. Our hotel overlooked a lake and the surrounding hills...a clear upgrade from van camping in the 1970s.
We visited Jaipur first, then traveled on to Jodhpur and Udaipur, our days filled with the sights and smells of Rajasthan. One morning, we drove in jeeps across dry countryside to a weavers' and potters' enclave. As we approached the village, our line of vehicles was joined by a parade of children and adults who waved and shouted greetings. The village elder, his thick glasses held together with tape, greeted us formally. He took us to a weaver's home where the artisan demonstrated his pit loom sunk into the ground. At the potters' workshop, we watched a bone-thin worker form huge jugs by hand. We sat on rugs in the village center and listened to a music performance. Later we visited the local school, little more than a wide dirt space surrounded by low walls of dried mud. In the middle stood a concrete-topped cistern and from one wall a small awning jutted out to create a patch of shade. The children, all dressed in white shirts and red skirts or shorts, sat in the dirt of the dusty rectangle to recite their lessons. At the end of a lesson, the children clustered around us, laughing and holding out their hands. I gave out handfuls of pencils I had brought from home.
On the bus trip between Jodhpur and Udaipur, we stopped far from any village. We tramped along a narrow pathway, across a dirt field, and past an ancient waterwheel. A group of colorfully costumed local singers, musicians, and dancers waited for us near a spreading Khejri tree. There, surrounded by farmland, we enjoyed a performance of drums, lutes, and dancing girls, their vivid saris decorated with gold thread swirling in the hot air. Each graceful movement was accompanied by the tinkle of tiny cymbals attached to the dancers' fingers and feet.
After two weeks with the group, we said goodbye to our new friends in Mumbai. Because I retained pleasant memories of the waterfront area from twenty-eight years before, I had booked a mid-class hotel, a few blocks beyond and several steps of luxury down from the famous Taj Hotel.
When we arrived at the airport late in the evening, a representative from the hotel stood among the waiting crowds with a placard scrawled with my name in large, black letters. This was a good sign.
Our taxi wound through streets filled with crowds celebrating a holiday commemorating Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of new beginnings—a most auspicious omen for us. Soon, I recognized the arch of the Gateway of India, a black silhouette against the moon-sparkled water of the harbor. We drove past the iconic Taj Hotel, its façade aglow with lights, and continued down the dark road lined with spreading mango and banyan trees.
Our taxi took us to an unimpressive three-story building with a single light and a neon sign to welcome travelers. The check-in desk was efficient and we were led to a tiny elevator that clanked loudly as we rose upward. When the elevator door opened, I was surprised to see we were on the flat roof of the building. Half the area was filled with tables and chairs and a small bar counter, all deserted at this late hour. Only a few feet across from the elevator door, a rough stucco addition dominated the remainder of the roof. Our porter fumbled with an old lock in the wooden door of this box-like structure and waved for us to enter. He handed me the key, returned to the elevator, and disappeared from sight.
The room, most likely originally meant as servants' quarters, was not more than ten feet by eight feet. It allowed barely enough space to walk around the one double bed. A hard-backed chair stood in the corner and a narrow ledge that would never support our heavy luggage was nailed below the window. In the minuscule bathroom, the water pipe jutted out of the wall without a showerhead or an enclosure. The room's one window opened onto the café/bar, quiet now but surely a gathering place most evenings.
Una and I looked at each other in horror. We hadn't expected the comforts of the last few weeks with Elderhostel, but this wasn't the new beginning we had hoped for. "We can't stay here," I said. "I'll go downstairs and beg for a better room. Wait for me."
As I descended to the ground floor, I could only hope that another room was available so late. If not, we would have to sleep there and find something better in the morning.
I faced the sleepy desk clerk with determination. "The room is too small for two women with big luggage," I said firmly.
The clerk looked glum. "Nothing else available," he said with a wag of his head.
I insisted on the impossibility of our staying in the room we had been given. "If you have nothing, you must help me call someplace else and find a better room. We cannot stay in the room on the roof!"
With another shake of his head, the clerk lifted the phone and made a call. I couldn't understand his Hindi, but he seemed agitated. After several minutes, he hung up and said, "I have found something here for you. It's a much better room, but it's not ready for guests. You must wait a few minutes."
I explained that I would return to the roof to get my sister and our luggage. "Yes, yes, Memsahib," he said. "Meet me on the third floor in ten minutes." When we arrived there, it was obvious the room had been in use as a lounge for the hotel employees. Two men besides the clerk were scurrying about, straightening the bed-covers, dumping the waste containers, emptying ashtrays, gathering up dirty teacups and water glasses, and removing used towels. But the room was big, there were two full-sized beds, a decent bathroom, and a door that opened to a tiny balcony overlooking the street and the harbor. It was after one o'clock in the morning and we didn't care that the wrinkled bedspreads were probably soiled and that dust balls lingered in the corners. We fell asleep almost as soon as our heads hit the lumpy pillows.
Earlier than I would have wished, I awakened to loud cawing. Una was already up and I joined her on our little balcony. Ten or twelve large crows circled over a nearby mango tree making a racket. Below in the street, a scrawny monkey scurried along the nearby docks. We watched as the poor creature scampered down the road, the flock of crows in pursuit.
We came to love our room with a view. If we awoke early enough, we could greet the sun from our east-facing balcony. Suddenly, where the silver of the sea bled into the gray of the dawn, the orange morning sun would emerge. As the fiery orb rose into a clearing sky, it created a molten path of reflected light that led directly toward our window.
Our first day on our own started slowly but by noon we were both ready for lunch at the Taj café where Tom and I had eaten years before. I ordered "my usual", the fillet of Pomfret, which arrived delicate and tasty. After lunch, eager to share places I had enjoyed in the winter of '73, I suggested we visit the sprawling Crawford market. As soon as we got out of the taxi, Una and I were enveloped by crowds of shoppers. Two middle-aged Western women, we soon attracted the attention of one of the ever-present touts. Though some of these guys can be pleasant enough companions, this one was truly obnoxious. We tried to discourage him in the bluntest way possible, but he wouldn't leave. He claimed he was a government employee and it was his duty to stay with us. Finally, fed up with the guy's lies, Una turned to me and said, "Let's go find a policeman and ask if it's true." Instantly, our unwanted helper melted into the crowd and was gone.
The next day was set aside for sightseeing in Mumbai. On my previous visit to the city, Tom had taken me on a taxi tour of the city's nightlife spots. Una and I started with the Temple of Ganesh where the alleyway leading to the shrine was filled with stalls selling flower garlands. At the Gandhi Museum, we saw the room where Gandhi slept and his spinning wheel. We stopped briefly at the Hanging Gardens park and then drove near the Parsi Towers of Silence, where the Zoroastrian dead are laid in the sun and devoured by birds of prey. Our last stop was a view overlooking the river and the dhobi ghats. This 140-year-old, open-air laundromat hummed with activity. An estimated half a million pieces of laundry from hospitals, hotels, and homes were hand-washed there each day. Dozens of washer-men, each with his own concrete station, scrubbed linens and clothing, spun the wet laundry in manual dryers and pressed out the wrinkles with charcoal-filled irons. All this was more interesting to me than the night-time brothels and cafes Tom and I had driven by in '73.
After three days in Mumbai, we were ready to try our solo travel wings—two women on our own in India. In 1973, when illness had shifted Tom's and my route toward New Delhi, I had never expected to be given a second chance to see Rajasthan. But I had come back and Rajasthan had shared its beauty and mystery. So far, I had found India as endlessly fascinating as on my first visit. But best of all, I had discovered it was possible to return to a place seen before and still experience new and wonderful things.
India had changed very little in the twenty-eight years since I had been there the first time. Somehow, it seemed eternal. The masses of people were unchanged, but I could see some improvements in the infrastructure (roads, public transportation, hotels) and it seemed like fewer people slept on city sidewalks. The phenomenon of families of displaced poor camping on the highway medians was a new sight, probably because there had been no wide, grassy medians in 1973. Perhaps this was a step up from sleeping on the concrete sidewalk, but it was a sign of how far India had yet to go. There were still plenty of beggars, cows wandering the streets, the babble of many languages, and air pollution.
India is a place like no other. With cyber-technology leading the way, I suspect that changes over the last twenty years (since 2001) have been much more significant. Perhaps it's time to go to India again.
Note: Recent news of a spike in cases and an escalating death rate from Covid-19 in India are distressing. For me, India is not a place of unknown faces, but a friend from my past. I worry about their future.