Just Back From
We travel to feel, to see, to understand, to explore, to connect, to confront the unfamiliar, to seek grace, to break free from our assumptions about the world, and to rediscover our true selves without the distracting trappings of our daily lives. So many destinations are familiar enough that we really have to work to seek out these moments of clarity. Over ten days in India, I found that almost every minute of every day forced me down all of these paths, to a degree that was intense, unexpected and thrilling. I went with two girlfriends and we visited the subcontinent’s greatest hits: Delhi, Udaipur, Jaipur and Agra. Along the way, we experienced constant swings between emotional extremes: from heartbreaking squalor to fairy-tale splendor, from mad chaos to spiritual serenity. Even something as simple as a transfer from the hotel to an excursion became an adventure. One afternoon near Jaipur, on our way to visit a man who had created an elephant refuge in the countryside, we saw two tribeswomen herding goats on a remote dirt road. They wore embroidered saffron-colored saris that stood in gorgeous relief against the drab hues of the dusty landscape. I wanted to photograph her, so asked our driver to pull the car over. We began a pantomime exchange (they spoke Hindi) that resulted in one woman inviting us into her tiny thatched-roof hut, where she was making masala chai. She was very eager to share with us some water that she was drinking out of an old beer bottle (we demurred) and seemed flattered by our attention. Later that afternoon, we painted vibrant designs on elephants with special vegetable dye and rode them through the countryside to a tented camp where a bonfire and hot drinks were waiting for us. Just another day in India.
The moments of majesty were many: mountaintop forts of spectacular scale concealing interior courtyards lined with scalloped archways; city palaces with delicately painted colonnades of breathtaking harmony; Hindu temples with layer upon layer of intricate stone carving; towering mosques in dramatic red stone. Our guide helped us hit monuments at just the right time. We arrived at the Taj Mahal at sunrise and made a beeline for the interior, where for a few blessed minutes we had it completely to ourselves in total silence. Afterwards, we walked the perimeter and watched it float in and out of the morning mist.
In Rajasthan, many of the hotels are just as impressive as the sights. The region is known for its palace hotels, historic masterpieces that are impeccably restored, but what really brings them alive is their marvelous sense of pageantry. The staff members are always dressed regally. The men may be in dapper suits, with handlebar mustaches and flowing red turbans, the women in electric blue saris with gold edging. One heritage hotel, the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, is a white marble confection built for a Maharanah that appears to be floating on the surface of a lake like something out of a storybook. At night, the staff lights hundreds of lanterns and candles in the turrets and on the rooftop and arranges rose, jasmine and marigold petals in intricate designs. As you walk by, you are hit with a light fragrance of tea rose and jasmine. Best of all is to see it lit up by night on the water from afar aboard the resort’s century-old boat. In numerous hotels, we were sprinkled with rose petals as we arrived and blessed with a third eye forehead dot. We meditated in the mornings in gazebos in formal gardens amid wandering peacocks. Fog and smog comingled to create a dreamy morning haze with visible shafts of light streaming through the trees.
Despite so many scenes that were mystical and magical, India is never just about just glamour and grandeur. It always confronts you with the full spectrum of human experience, including devastating poverty and insane chaos, and that’s what makes it such a powerful destination. I had been forewarned about the exhausting long drives between cities, but they were still astonishing. In particular, the five-hour drive along the highway from Jaipur to Agra was riveting. Driving in India is like living a video game or a high-speed chase, with everyone perpetually speeding, swerving and weaving in between each other with barely an inch of clearance, often squeezing two or three vehicles into a single lane. White Toyota sedans zipping along at 50 mph share the road with sputtering auto-rickshaws the size of golf carts holding a dozen people, a boy on a bike carrying a pile of textiles on his lap, motorcycles carrying families of five, the children sandwiched between their parents, men in tattered robes on foot herding goats and sheep, pedestrians weaving through any slowdowns in traffic selling wedges of papaya from a cart, cows and feral dogs and monkeys randomly loitering in the road, Jeeps with four people hanging off the back standing on the bumper, trucks with crazily oversized loads strapped to the roof, and even the occasional elephant. No one pays much attention to road rules and we were grateful for our skillful driver. We passed through towns and villages where traffic slowed to a crawl and life was lived right out on the street. Transient workers clustered around makeshift campfires along the shoulder of the road; women holding babies tapped on the window to beg; street vendors sold deep-fried honeycomb; children played by garbage heaps.
As an American, these scenes can be excruciatingly hard to watch, but in India there is always an air of acceptance of what is and a commingling of everything together that feels somehow spiritually better than our national habit of segregating lives into sanitized bubbles of sameness. The Hindu culture is not just one of acceptance, but of gratitude and celebration of everyday life. Truck drivers adorn their vehicles with stencils, vivid flowers, streamers, tassels and hearts to give thanks and praise to the machines that support their livelihoods. Women in dusty regions wear vibrant saris with fancy detailing to make sure color is part of their day-to-day.
My favorite moments were the ones where everything collided. At the tail end of our first day in Delhi, our guide encouraged us to visit a Sikh temple. He explained to us the foundations of the Sikh spiritual tradition, which is a religion of peace and generosity. We began by removing our shoes and purchasing a plate of marigolds as an offering. The gorgeous white marble temple glowed a soft ochre in the setting sun as we walked barefoot up the stone steps. Inside, women were chanting softly. We made our offering and sat cross-legged on the floor amidst the other worshippers as people made their way to the altar to present their flowers.
Part of the Sikh tradition is to feed the needy. The temple has a large community kitchen that is staffed and supplied entirely by volunteers. In one room, men sat amid great piles of vegetables chopping cauliflower and boiling vats of potatoes. In another, women gathered around a huge table rolling out dough for chapattis (flatbread), then grilling them on an open fire. My friends and I were able to pitch in rolling out dough. There were several grandmother types who guided us on how to keep it from sticking. In the room just beyond, hundreds of impoverished families ate dinner. It was an experience of grace and connection in a country of tremendous spiritual heritage, one of so many moments that will help me remember India as a place to rejoice in the beautiful and accept the challenging without looking away, to give thanks and share what we have, and to recognize each other’s humanity.
I am so excited to share this magical destination with our Indagare community and would love to help you plan your trip to India. Contact the Bookings Team for assistance.
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