Family Visit

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My parents and sister flew into Delhi early on November 21st for a ten-day whirlwind visit to India. We booked an intense and enjoyable tour for them through Indian Travel Consultant. It took us from shopping on Main Bazaar through the architectural wonders of Jaipur and the Taj Mahal, up to Varanasi for a taste of the Ganges (and a rendezvous with my brother) and then back to Delhi. They left early on the December 1st, and since then Sarah and I have been…well…recovering.

We didn’t have a lot of time and energy to write during their visit, but we did take a lot of pictures, and collect a number of memorable experiences that we are still digesting and unpacking.

Main Bazaar

My family didn’t spend a lot of time wallowing in jet-lag, keen to make every moment of their vacation memorable and worthwhile. My mother was particularly anxious to get some shopping done: she was salivating from our descriptions of Main Bazaar. If she could have started her spree right off the plane at three in the morning, I think she would have. Unfortunately, Main Bazaar moves pretty slowly until ten.

Spaghetti Omelet?
Spaghetti Omelet?

We had an enjoyable family breakfast at the hotel. It was wonderful to share our space, our food, and our conversations with loved ones. We discovered that Cottage Ganga has unsurpassed pekoras, but their kitchen staff doesn’t speak the best English. My father attempted to order a Spanish omelet, but ended up with a spaghetti omelet instead.

It was wonderful acquainting my family with the Main Bazaar experience. They got to eat at the Grand Sindhi, and meet Amar and Nicky (who has recently returned from Goa). And of course, they got their shopping on.

Even though it’s been two dozen years, my mother’s Urdu came back to her right away. Academically speaking, my mom and I are probably on equal footing with the Hindustani language, but, speaking-wise, it comes to her much more fluently than it I can manage it, and her background experience with the culture makes her much bolder in deploying it.

Jaipur

We set off early the next morning for Jaipur, the Pink City, the capital of Rajasthan. The six-hour car journey from Delhi was a new experience for all of us: the road was new and nearly complete, very different than the ride down from Rishikesh. And when my parents were in India two dozen years ago, there were barely any roads at all.

We stayed in a heritage property, a beautiful nineteenth century palace with breathtaking open balconies and courtyards, and a snotty staff. At dusk, our driver took us to the Galta temple, a beautiful Mughal palace at back of an isolated ravine that has been converted into Hindu shrine. It also has a “monkey problem.” At the rear of the property, we found probably a thousand monkeys huddled in the shadows. We were invited (somewhat forcefully) to feed them bananas. Thankfully, the animals were all well-behaved: the situation could have turned unpleasant quite quickly.

Jaipur is a beautiful city with thick, medieval walls and scads of beautiful pink palaces. Our tour of the city took us through all the sites and shuffled us through the list of local “approved” artisans, where, after watching the craftsmen at work, we were given the opportunity to buy their authentic work for extravagantly more than the knock-offs would have been in the market.

We took an elephant ride at Amber Fort, which was a unique experience. The tourist traffic was, of course, quite heavy. For better or for worse, the ride price was clearly posted, giving all the aggressive souvenir hawkers an idea of how much loose change their quarry had.

“20! 20! 20! 20!” rang the constant refrain as books and statuettes and baubles were shoved before our faces. It actually seemed like a reasonable price for once, until we realized it was quoted in dollars, rather than rupees.

It was even worse when we left the fort and pulled up to take a picture of the water palace. The hawkers there ran up and totally surrounded the car, eagerly pressing their wares against the windows. Oddly enough, one of the hawkers was selling a picture of my mom and Emma on the elephant ride! We couldn’t tell if he had chased us down the hill, or if he knew the tourist circuit well enough to lie in wait for us, but either way it was a little creepy.

Agra

Agra is an interesting city: it basically exists because of the Taj. All of the local interest and industry orbits around the Taj to the extent that factories are banned from the area around the landmark, and the pollution levels are tracked on a large screen.

But I must say, the hype is warranted. The Taj Mahal is truly that big, and that beautiful. No photograph can really capture the size and mystique of the tomb. Despite the utter crush of tourists from India and abroad, the beautiful, spacious symmetry of the surrounding gardens performed beautifully, absorbing all the people easily. Despite the crowds, there was a profound peace and quietness to the space.

The Obligatory Family Picture at the Taj
The Obligatory Family Picture at the Taj

We got to see the marble inlay process at work, which, of all of our “demos,” was probably the most impressive to me. Not only is it intricate and beautiful hand-craftsmanship, but the ethnography behind the process is fascinating. According to our host, the “genuine” method of marble inlay is a family secret. The Moguls brought inlay craftsman from Iran some four hundred years ago, and since then, it has flourished in the family, today a guild of some seven thousand.

Varanasi

We Thanksgave in Varanasi, one of the holiest cities of Hinduism. We found little sympathy for our American holiday overseas, but the irony of being so utterly surrounded by pilgrims and Indians was not lost on us.

We started our day with a boat tour of the Ganges, and were amused to find that even the waterways weren’t free of street merchants. It was like piracy in reverse: the hawkers pulled up beside our little boat in their “floating mall” and made sure to hang on until we had a good chance to inspect all of their wares. The strangest thing we saw for sale was buckets of live fish, pedaled only to the East Asian crowd.

We passed by the ghats, where we saw everything from tourists to cremations, puppies to TV sadhus, laughing yogis to sinking temples, and (my personal favorite) a floating ashram.

Our tour guide picked up my brother on his motorcycle so that we could have Thanksgiving dinner together. Not only did we lack a kitchen to produce appropriate fare for the occasion, but turkey is not a very popular Indian meat. We were basically resigned to having our feast at the hotel restaurant, which had marginal service and somewhat limited menu options. But, on the plus side, it had a wonderful view of the Ganges, and its placement allowed us to be “up close and personal” with the animal life. (It’s the first time we’ve ever sat inside the cage while we watched the animals outside the cage.)

And so we planned to spend Thanksgiving. But of course, things don’t always work out the way we plan them. Jon had scarcely gotten his toasted cheese when a crowd of twenty or thirty Indian men in suits descended upon the restaurant. They began unfolding documents, pulling out cellphones, and talking with the staff. The waiter was visibly agitated, and called to the kitchen staff in trembling Hindi.

A stealthy shot of the swarm of bureaucrats.
A stealthy shot of the swarm of bureaucrats.

Piece by piece, the contents of the kitchen was moved into the dining room. We watched, wondering if this was a bad omen for our meal. Below, we could see a couple of uniformed officers standing guard, and a crowd gathering in the narrow alleyways, just outside of their perimeter.

After fifteen minutes of gathering tension, the waiter finally informed us that the kitchen was closed, and so it would not be possible for them to bring us any more food. We paid our bill and made to leave, but were guided to a more discrete exit down through the hotel lobby.

One of the staff followed us out, and offered an apology and explanation. “Very sorry, have to break kitchen,” he told us in a low voice. “Too close to Ganges.”

Apparently someone didn’t pay their bribe.

The lobby was absolutely full of policemen: at least thirty, all with assault rifles slung over their shoulder. Leaving the hotel felt a little like running the gauntlet.

So we ate somewhere else for Thanksgiving.

The Train Ride

The train ride from Varanasi to Delhi is supposed to take about twelve hours. And it’s done overnight, too—the idea is you get on the train, you sleep, you wake up, and voila! you’re in a new place. That, however, was not our experience.

Our train into Varanasi ran four hours late, so we were a little pessimistic about getting in on time. But how often does such a thing happen? “Maybe we’ve already had our rotten luck,” we thought, “and this leg of our journey will go off without a hitch.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way things worked out.

The first problem came in the middle of the night. We had one seat outside of our berth, so when boarding, we switched places with another traveler. However, a codgery old man got on the train, and decided that he wanted a lower bunk. So, with the help of the conductor, he quite angrily displaced Sarah from her seat, and all of our luggage from underneath it.

A train derailed ahead of us, so the track was closed. We were sent back several hundred kilometers so that we could continue to Delhi on another track. Of course, since we were out of queue, we were lowest priority on the track. So we actually spent most of our time waiting for other trains to pass us.

Our total train journey actually took closer to thirty-two hours, rather than the published twelve. Two nights and one day. I was very glad to have purchased a few DVDs in Varanasi. We kept ourselves (and the several Indians who passed through or peeked in to our compartment) entertained by watching a couple of Bollywood hits on my laptop.

Our adventure was not perfect, but we were not expecting it to be perfect. It was incredibly high paced, but, given the time constraints of my family’s visit, there wasn’t any other way to do it. We had some hiccups in our arrangements, some difficulties with our drivers, but we found that back in the office, our tour agent Feroz was always our advocate, taking our side rather than that of his hired guns.

We all had a wonderful time. It was a fitting introduction to India for my sister, my parents both did what they wanted to do, seeing some new sights and revisiting some old ones. Sarah and I enjoyed the change of pace, and saw some different things in a different way. Of course, beyond this, it was wonderful to see my family, and hard to see them go. Feel free to come visit us!

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