Following the bittersweet end to our two weeks of living and volunteering in Jaipur, we began the tourist portion of our India trip. In the months leading up to India, we'd spent several Skype sessions planning with my parents, who would join us there for the second half of the month for a tour of southern India followed by a family wedding in Gujarat. My dad did a considerable portion of the legwork in planning this portion of the trip, since he could speak Hindi with various tour agencies, and since Simon and I couldn't always access the internet in the deserts and mountains of Morocco, where we were traveling in October while also finalizing plans for our December trip to India. My parents had been advised by Indian friends to use a travel agency in India, and we chose Caper Travel, which furnished us with a two-week itinerary, drivers, guides, and hotels. Prior to India, Simon and I had been booking all of those things ourselves (which is usually cheaper and provides greater flexibility), but since this would be a family vacation in a country that everyone warned us would be the most difficult place to travel, an agency sounded like a good idea. After lots of back and forth with Sunil, our contact at Caper, we settled on a plan in which we would travel separately from my parents for the first week due to conflicting plans for the northern part of the trip. They wanted to see Jaipur, where we'd already been for 2 weeks; and Sachiyo, Simon's mom, particularly wanted to visit some spiritual destinations in the north that were not on my parents' must-see list. After separate tours of the north, we would meet up in southern India to tour the state of Kerala together....honeymooning with both of our parents. :)
Our driver for the northern portion of our tour, Anand, picked up Simon, Sachiyo, and I from Prity Guesthouse and drove us to Ranthambore, home of a forested national park in Rajasthan where we hoped to see tigers (we didn't, but every other tourist we met claimed they did). The park, experienced from an open safari jeep, was particularly refreshing in its wild beauty after spending two weeks in noisy, dusty Jaipur. Though we did not see the elusive tigers, we saw antelope, bears, jackals, wild bore, and many species of birds. As evidenced by the above photo, we were pretty giddy to be experiencing someplace new, tigers or no. The Ranthambore Regency, and all of the hotels selected by Caper as part of our tour package, ranks among the most luxurious accommodations of our entire trip. Arriving fresh from Prity Guesthouse (arguably the least comfortable accommodation thus far, although I wouldn't trade the experience because of the people we met there, etc.), checking into this jungle-themed resort felt like that scene in A Little Princess when war-orphaned Sarah wakes up to find her attic prison room transformed by silky cushions and decadent pastries, gifts from the sympathetic Indian benefactor next door (I was obsessed with this movie as a child - both the 1939 Shirley Temple version and the 1995 remake. Although the famous line "I AM a princess...all girls are!" now gives me pause....). Our new rooms with clean floors, western-style showers, and fluffy white bedding felt like Rajasthani palaces. We exclaimed over the complimentary bottles of lotion as if we'd never stayed in a hotel before.
Following our safari drives through the park, Anand took us to Ranthambore Fort, where dozens of monkeys perched atop the crumbling walls of the 12th century fortress (alternately Jain and Mughal throughout its history....now home to a functioning Hindu temple). We were approached by a man near the fort's entrance, and accepted his offer to be our tour guide for a small fee. I assumed he was close to my father's age, and we were shocked when he told us he is only 42 years old. His small income garnered from giving tours (he asked us for about $3 for the hour), paired with his mention of six children justify the worry lines prematurely aging his face. What an odd, thirty-something yet still-childless, globe traipsing pair of newlyweds we must appear to many in this country. Most people we met in India assumed that we were much younger, since Indian couples don't traditionally date each other for six years before becoming newlyweds.
From Ranthambore, Anand drove us to Agra, where a sedan promptly smashed into our SUV's passenger side door just as Sachiyo was about to open it in our hotel's parking lot. Luckily, she had not yet opened the door, and no one was injured. Some yelling and hand waving ensued, but no police were called and no contact or insurance information was exchanged. Anand explained that there is no enforceable system for assigning responsibility in these kinds of minor accidents, and he would need to fix the dented door himself. We felt for Anand, who had valorously shuttled us thus far through many miles of truly insane road conditions without incident or ill temper, only to be assaulted while safely parked at the hotel entrance. India keeps you on your toes.
The next morning, with our toes sheathed in disposable booties, we beheld the gorgeous Taj Mahal. Though immediately recognizable from images in books and movies, the bejeweled white marble tomb of queen Mumtaz Mahal is spectacular in person. In addition to the massive tomb itself with its regal reflecting pools and river views, there is a small museum on the left side of the grounds that contains several detailed paintings and etchings that I really enjoyed. While the iconic tomb was jammed with tourists and shouting guards, the little museum was nearly empty....although I had to rush through it to meet our tour guide on time. One frustrating aspect of our Caper tour was the time limits incurred by our guides. While it was great to have a guide at the Taj Mahal to explain the history and architectural elements, my slowpoke museum style was a little cramped by his imposed timeline for the day.
The flip side of being herded, however, is getting to see more (I'm finally getting a taste of my own medicine after ruthlessly timekeeping and herding in my previous job). After spending the morning at the Taj Mahal, we spent the afternoon at Agra Fort, the impressive stronghold and palace of 16th century royal Mughals. Located on the opposite side of the river Yamuna, there are great views of the Taj Mahal from the fort's domed windows. We couldn't get enough of the Taj's white domes, but my cousin Sanjay later told us with some disdain that the Taj looks dingy and gray these days. The gleaming white version that he remembers seeing as a child has lost some of its sheen due to pollution in urban Agra. The modern city of Agra is filled with hotels, restaurants, souvenir hawkers capitalizing on the city's world heritage sites, and traffic (we had some close calls while weaving across a busy road dense with motorbikes). For a glimpse of Agra, watch the music video for the currently popular Bollywood song, Superman, another awesomely cheesy staple in the soundtrack of our India trip.
The Glorious Taj Mahal
Impressive Agra Fort
After Agra, Anand navigated our SUV through nine-hours of nearly constant honking, some close nighttime encounters with tractors crawling without headlights on the unlit roads, frequent swerves onto the wrong side of the road to bypass slow-moving trucks, and what can only be described as an epic traffic faceoff on either side of a railroad crossing. We were so thankful for Anand, who not only got us to the city of Haridwar unscathed, but who did so with a genuinely cheerful disposition that defied the stressfulness of the situation. The main portion of Haridwar is a dense collection of low-slung buildings, market stalls, and temples, draped blockily on the sloping ground between the river Ganges and the base of the Himalayas. Anand dropped us off along the banks of the famous river, where we caught a rickshaw across a bridge to our hotel in the no-car zone on the opposite shore. After settling in, we all had our palms read by the hotel's resident palm reader (when in Haridwar....).
In Haridwar, we visited the Mansa Devi Hindu temple, which sits in the highest point of town and the lowest portion of the chain of Himalayas. This is a pilgrimage site for Hindus all over India, and we filtered through the temple's honeycomb-esque series of small shrines among a steady flow of tourists and pilgrims that mostly consisted of Indians from other parts of the country. Priests manning each shrine reached for my head to paint a tilaka on my forehead with red or orange powder, or to wrap red string around my wrist. After doing so, they aggressively demanded monetary donations. We had come prepared with small bills, having visited several Hindu temples in Jaipur, but unlike other temples in which the priests had spent time either offering us a blessing or explaining the meaning or history of the shrines, the priests at Mansa Devi seemed impatient for donations, and actually became angry if we bypassed a shrine without donating.
It was culturally interesting to see flocks of Hindu pilgrims streaming in and out of the temple, but as non-Hindus, one such experience felt like enough....and a bit like harassment. Even our local guide, a Hindu himself, agreed that Mansa Devi had lost sight of spirituality in its focus on extracting money from pilgrims. Though additional similar temples had been on his original agenda for us, he took us instead to Rishikesh, a tiny town situated at the place where the Ganges emerges from the base of the Himalayas just north of Haridwar. We visited a few ashrams, including one called Vashistha that had been built away from the town against a rocky hillside, beside a sandy stretch of beach along the river. We filed into a narrow cave at Vashistha, taking in the craggy walls and a worn-smooth dirt floor covered with woven mats by the dim light of our guide's keychain flashlight. He switched it off, and we sat on the mats in pitch dark silence for several minutes: Sachiyo meditating, me praying, and Simon pondering. In pictures I've seen of other places along the river Ganges, the river appears brown and polluted, but in Rishikesh near its pristine source, it is clear green.
Every evening in Rishikesh, a ceremony called Aarti takes place at sunset on the riverbank. Local monks, residents, pilgrims and tourists congregate to offer light in the form of candles and oil lamps to the Hindu deities in order to express humility and gratitude. Golden sunset, flames, marigolds, and monks' robes bring to mind flames of gratitude rising from the riverbank on the monks' singing voices into the dusky sky. It is solemn, and at the same time almost raucously celebratory, with onlookers joining in clapping to the beat of the monks' songs. I was thankful to be moving on soon to the next segment of our India trip, in which I would finally get to experience my father's homeland with my father (and for all of the other zillion things in my life that elicit both solemn and raucous gratitude).
While touring the north that first week, it felt odd seeing my parents' pictures on Facebook of places I had only recently been in India.....virtually sharing our parallel experiences, at some points only a few hours' drive apart. Had it not been for the hectic timing, Sunil's limited willingness to think beyond pre-packaged tour schedules, and many missed connections due to faulty internet, I believe we could have worked out a more synchronized schedule. We did try, but at some point in October, as prices started to creep up, we threw up our hands and booked our tours. It's true, India is a difficult place to travel compared to many countries, but we are already formulating plans for our next visit (to the many parts of the giant country that we missed), sans tour company.