January 27-31, 2010 (India – Overland Journey & Taj Mahal)

JANURY 27 – ARRIVAL IN DELHI

I had to distance myself from India before writing about it. I made an attempt shortly after returning to the ship… but my tears threatened to short circuit the keyboard. I am now ready to make a valiant stab at “bringing you there”… but need to caution you first. Some of the images I describe may offend your delicate sensibilities. Here goes…

We flew from Dubai to Delhi which is in the northern part of India. Check out your Atlas. Delhi has a population of 14 million people – which encompasses a 18 mile radius. That’s right, 14 million.

There were 28 people in our group and we were split between two spotlessly clean buses after we met our guides outside of immigration. 14 people per bus with tons of space to move around. We were psyched! I had envisioned being crammed into a minibus with a rattling air conditioner that died 10 years ago… bouncing over rutted roads shoulder to shoulder with the one person who chose not to wear deodorant as a way to fully immerse themselves in the Indian Experience.

I liked our guide the moment I met him. Hem Singh sported a handle bar mustache, cowboy hat, oddly proportioned jodhpurs, lizard skin boots, and a scarf around his neck. He looked like he belonged in a cheesy mexican movie. His english was perfect and he is a native of Delhi. Unlike our Dubai guide… there was no “company sanctioned” script. He made no excuses or apologies for what we saw over the next 2 days. He did not try to impress us or portray the people and condition of India in a rosy light.

It was 8 PM when we left the airport for the 10 mile ride to our hotel via a major highway. It was utter pandemonium. We learned instantly that “painted lines” mean nothing in India. 3 “proper lanes” became 6 as every inch of empty space was filled by a moving object. City buses were packed so tight that surplus riders clung to the roof. Bicycles carrying 3 people darted between cars…, tiny motor scooters ferried entire families with an infant sandwiched between the 3rd and 4th person… food vendors pushed their carts in the fast lane…, dogs trotted along the shoulder looking for scraps of food…, a caravan of camels plodded through construction material on the potholed shoulder… and then the one image that zapped a few brain cells by it’s utter incongruity… 2 cows standing in the middle of the highway, completely unfazed by the chaos as all the drivers were forced to maneuver around them. Every vehicle that had a “noise making device” exercised it continuously. It took us 1.5 hours to get to our destination (the Oberoi). I was a babbling idiot by the time we checked in, that is… after we had our bus searched by the armed guards at the gate, went through a metal detector at the front door, had our bodies “wanded” and our belongings scanned. On the heels of the Mumbai bombings in 2008, all of the “high end” Indian hotels have become very cautious.

As we lied in bed that first night, our journey barely begun, completely overstimulated, ears ringing with phantom honking… we decided that we were very very happy to be on a big shinny bus and not behind the wheel of a rental car.

JANUARY 28 – DELHI TO AGRA (TAJ MAHAL)

We left for Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) at 8 AM. Its only 100 miles south… but it would take us 5 hours to get there, on the one multipurpose road.

Within the first 10 minutes of leaving the hotel, I was shaken by what my eyes were recording. Thousands of people were going somewhere… the same chaos as last night. It never stops. But now I could see beyond the veil of smog, smoke, and filth, into daily life.

The first shocker was all the garbage, everywhere. I mean massive piles steaming in the hot sun. Hem told us that people’s homes are spotlessly clean (even those that live in one room shanties) … but they throw their trash on the street. They feel it is the government’s responsibility to pick it up. Problem is… the piles are never picked up, and they just continue to grow.

We saw hundreds of emaciated animals wandering listlessly through the streets. Apparently, after a cow or bull gets too old and stops “producing” … the owner cut them loose, not wanting to feed them any longer. Cows are sacred to Hindus, so they will not kill them. Ever. It would be a blessing if they did, to end the suffering. Instead, these pathetic animals stumble through piles of rancid garbage scavenging for something to eat, or begging for handouts, and eventually die of starvation. The same goes for old goats and hundreds of stray dogs. It was gut wrenching to witness.

People use the street gutters and sidewalks as a toilet. They just squat and go. Can you imagine the stench and disease? Later on… I saw a women washing clothes in the same gutter where some errant stream of water was trickling. The traffic was whizzing past her frail frame. I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the the screech of tires.

Just off the road, women were molding piles of fresh cow dung into saucer shaped discs (this is where the term “cow pies” come from) with their bare hands . They were left to dry in the open air before being stored in thatched huts. They are used for “cooking fuel” and are purchased by villagers when needed. Further down the alley, a young man lead a herd of skeletal buffalo down a side street trying to sell them off, one by one.

Everything happens inches from the street. Sidewalk barbers set up a single battered chair and beckoned men to come for a shave. Customers stuck their finger in the “Milk Man’s” jug to see if the product was rancid, before committing to a pitcher-full. We passed by an “open air” used book store. Snake charmers performed for the bus as we stopped to pay a toll.

It all seemed so dismal and depressing to us. But… here’s the thing… most people we observed were smiling and downright jovial… living in conditions that we would consider to be an abomination.

When we reached Agra, the traffic was at a stand still. So, what did our bus driver do? Well he backed up, of course, for over a mile in the oncoming traffic. He did it without pause. I said that “lanes” mean nothing… well, apparently, they side of the road you drive on doesn’t mean a whole lot either. We often had vehicles speeding towards us on the shoulder because they had a short distance to go, and didn’t want to be bothered with crossing traffic to get to the proper side. It’s just the way it is.

After lunch at the Oberoi Hotel in Agra we headed to the Taj Mahal. By far the most spectacular hotel I have ever stayed in. If you are curious… look up their website.

The Taj Mahal is considered to be the most brilliant Monument to Love. Built for Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of emperor Shah Jehan, after she died in childbirth. It was built in the late 1,600’s by 22,000 skilled craftsman and it took 22 years to complete. It is a study in perfection. We spent three hours marveling in the magnificence of this place.

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

JANUARY 29 – AGRA TO DELHI

We retraced our steps back to Delhi along the same road that entranced and sickened our senses yesterday.

JANUARY 30 – DELHI TO MUMBAI (formally Bombay)

We left this morning on our 2 hour flight to Mumbai. Before touching down… we passed over huge tracts of “shanty towns” that extended all the way to the edge of the runways… inches from where the jets touch down. There are 18 million that live in the metropolitan area. 18 Million. We headed downtown and checked into the Trident hotel. We did not stay at the “higher end” Oberoi (next door) … because it was bombed along with the Taj Hotel in 2008 by terrorists, and is still under construction. We had a brief city tour, that highlighted the fascinating “Public Laundry”. Here, you can drop off your clothes, have them beaten to death in dirty water, and returned to you a week later. The clothing is segregated “by neighborhood”, and they make it back to the rightful owner 98% of the time (which seems impossible). I have never seen anything like it. The cost of washing “a bed sheet” is about 35 cents. A shirt, about 5 cents.

We were pretty wiped out by the time we got to Mumbai… so didn’t really spend much time wandering round. We just couldn’t absorb anymore. Plus, it was smoggy, over 95F with 100% humidity.

Mumbai Public Laundry
Mumbai Public Laundry

JANUARY 31 – MUMBAI TO COCHIN

This morning our 2 hour flight deposited us in Cochin to rejoin the Queen Mary II. I was not feeling well, at all. I ate something questionable and barely held it together before getting back to the ship. When we got to Cochin, it was close to 100F, and after a 2 hour bumpy bus ride to the Port, we had to sit for an hour in a broiling cement hut while waiting for the immigration officer to call us in “one by one” to stamp our passports. My tummy was gurgling dangerously and I was drenched in sweat. Thank god for Imodium and two days at sea to recover.

Sorry this was so long… but it had to be “birthed”. I feel much better after expunging this experience, although the cows are still haunting me.

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