Reflections. India 2019

We’re delayed taking off from London for reasons I can’t determine because I don’t hear shit, the pilot has a British accent and the sound system sucks. While I don’t love delays, I accept them as inevitable. What I don’t accept as inevitable is the pilot thanking us for our patience. That pisses me off. It’s a little like a guy socking you in the nose, bloodying it and thanking your nose for being there. Keep your thanks, Captain Gracious, and just get us to Chicago.

First, reflecting on the problems. Two difficulties, which probably could not have been prevented.

After our itineraries were set, the airlines canceled some fights, which necessitated stops we had not anticipated and lengthened the amount of time we spent in transit, I’m sure that our travel agents explored all options and came up with the best they could, but less transit time would have enhanced the trip experience.

The transit portions done by car were less stressful. We had very comfortable SUVs, air conditioned, with wifi and drinks and snacks, and we could stop when we wanted to. Flying just sucks everywhere. Flying Business Class certainly helps, but it doesn’t eliminate the crowded airports, long lines and flight delays. The BA planes were not comfortable.

Second, we were both sick, with nasty coughs and periodic sore throats. Carol’s cough is still pretty bad, but mine has improved quite a bit. Of course these coughs sap energy and just make getting around less pleasant. Yet, I’d say we soldiered through pretty damn well for an elderly couple who have noted that distances are longer than they used to be, the heat is hotter than in the past, tiredness sets in earlier in the day and steps are higher than usual and subtle obstacles meant to trip you up are hidden at random places along the way.

I made several good moves on this trip. Taking my iPhone 11 and leaving my Sony and lenses was a brilliant move. I almost never wished I had the Sony. The iPhone photos at first blush look quite fine to me, certainly completely adequate for the blog and, I think, enough good shots to merit working on them when I get home.

Packing lighter and doing laundry more frequently was wise. I could have packed even lighter. Shorts and short sleeve shirts were the ticket, and I could have bent more heavily in that direction..

Taking walking sticks was helpful at times. I’ll take them on our next trip and probably use them more. Complementing use of the sticks was simply being a lot more consciously careful of where I stepped. Falls, I think, are most often occasioned by hitting a single stone or by a slight, subtle change in level. Walking down stairs or a slope where there is no hand rail or other support is dangerous; I took it slowly. In general, I was simply more cautious of all of these dangers, and it paid off.

Well, enough old folks talk. What about the trip, overall, and it’s highlights? Overall, I’d say the trip was a solid A-. Shonali did a terrific job of planning a very diverse trip. We stayed in spectacular places, definitely the best overall accommodations we’ve ever had. And we had guides, all of whom were excellent to outstanding. Trip details were handled efficiently and seamlessly, without glitches.

People often ask us about the food. We are not foodies and don’t travel for that reason. I’d say the food was good, just fine, but not exceptional. Had we been interested in great food, we probably would have sought it out and found it more often than we did. Frankly, at the end of a long day, a good meal at our hotel always seemed like the best option, rather than schlepping out to a restaurant.

As always, it was little personal, unexpected or truly different experiences that are the most interesting and memorable for us. Celebrating Diwali with a family in Jodhpur, an unscheduled stop at a cocoon market, visiting Bullet Baba’s temple, watching the shoemaker in Jodhpur, walking with the shepherd in Jawai and going to a village there, stopping by for opium tea, watching the master craftsman making inlaid wood pieces that you’d swear were paintings, running into the daughter of a couple who hosted us for lunch at a small guest house and finding that she’d studied law in England, too, and had lived in Japan, where we’re traveling next April, learning and seeing the intricacies of silk making by walking round the factory, being dazzled by the miniature painting at the Jodhpur fort museum and then seeing, hearing about and purchasing one of those pieces from Rohit in Delhi. The purchase seemed not like a random impulse purchase, but a follow through on something that had attracted our interest in Jodhpur. Carol enjoyed shopping for vegetables and then seeing lunch prepared.

Walking through villages, seeing people work at and explain their crafts (especially when they are not trying to sell them to you) and just seeing life and observing how different it is from what we experience; these are things we love. Of course, palaces and forts, and some temples, are must-sees. We enjoy those, but, at the end of the day, I hardly remember which is which and rarely who built them and when they were built. That said, seeing the Mysore Palace lit at night is something that certainly will remain in memory, (On the other hand, we feel we’ve pretty much done markets around the world. But, as soon as you say that, you come up with the terrific flower market, seen from above in Bangalore, or the unusual and interesting cocoon market.)

I’ve raved about the hotels we stayed at, which is a bit embarrassing. But not really. Certainly the luxury is noteworthy (and, okay, appealing). But really it’s more than that. These were actually the places that kings and maharajas lived, and a good deal of what they lived with surrounds you. Haven’t you ever sorta wanted to be a maharaja? I have.

I’ve also raved about our guides. Any traveler knows how important your guide is to your overall experience. Shonali knows that we are quite fussy about our guides, and makes sure that the guides she sets us up with are top drawer in their English, in their knowledge and in their ability to “get” what their clients are really after.

I’d have to say that two of the places we visited were extraordinary. First, Hampi for its wonderful archeological significance and striking beauty. And, second, Jawai, for its combination of leopards, shepherds, village people and magnificent, rugged landscape and beautiful sunset. And, if you can’t live in a palace, a luxury tent is a pretty good fallback.

I typically slip a photo or two into my last post, so that you won’t feel cheated. I had quite a number of candidates for this trip, but settled on two, both of Carol and me, first in our carriage pulling up to our palace in Hyderabad and second in the landscape of Jawai.These symbolize two of the wonderfully diverse experiences we had. They also show what a pleasure and privilege it is to still be able to share these adventures together, more than fifty-four years after our first major trip together, our honeymoon. I sincerely hope that some of you reading this can share those kinds of experiences with somebody who means so much to you.

Delhi and Punam

November 1

A slight digression. For those of you who have wondered what I think is the greatest invention ever made by man, I want to put your anxiety to rest. It’s the shower. I mean, the wheel was good, too, I suppose, but the shower was shear genius. I was reminded of that this morning, showering at the Imperial.

Moving on, now, with the day, we breakfasted at the hotel and then met the real reason we came to Delhi, Punam Ghandi. Punam (she correctly predicted that we’d never forget her name if we thought of “shayna Punam”) is the fabulous guide we fell in love with on our first trip to India, thirteen years ago, and saw again when we went to the South of India. She’s a great conversationalist on any topic, exceedingly honest and extremely knowledgeable, to boot. She’s become more of a friend than a guide, and we just wanted to hang out with her.

And that’s what we did. Carol still has a pretty bad cough and was not anxious to spend time outside, because of the poor air quality (and the heat did not seem attractive, either). Especially being the last day of our trip we wanted to take it easy. When we told her we’d enjoy seeing some art, she suggested that we see if Rohit Kaicker was around and, if so, go over to his gallery, located in his home, to see his fabulous collection and listen to his expertise about the art he collects.

Rohit was home, so we went over to his gallery and spent an hour and a half looking at and talking with him about his outstanding collection, which he says is a hobby that he picked up from his father. Clearly, this is much more than what we would consider a hobby, as he has rooms full of exquisite work.

You may recall that Carol and I were both blown away by the miniatures we saw in the palace museum at Jodhpur. That was the kind of work Rohit collects, a good deal of which is of a quality comparable to the museum work. We were able to examine the minute squirrel tail brush work on these pieces with a magnifying glass to appreciate the detailed work. We wound up buying an outstanding piece (more than twice the price of some very nice other pieces he showed us) and I look forward getting it home, framed and hung. It will make a great addition to our eclectic collection. We can be confident of its quality, not only because Rohit told us so (Punam had said about Robit before we went to see him that he was “too honest”), but because when we walked through his home, one of the pieces hung in his private collection was part of the same series as the one we purchased,

From Rohit’s house we drove to the National Modern Art Museum and walked through the collection. While there were some pieces we liked, for the most part we were not impressed. We drove by an area in which rather amusing paintings had been done on buildings that were not of the quality of the graffiti art I’d seen in Joburg in April, but fun to see.

We then went to lunch with Punam at Basil and Thyme, a small and unpretentious restaurant with excellent food. From there we went to another area to do some last-minute, small shopping, which was only partially successful. As it was already almost 4PM, we decided to declare victory and head back to the hotel, where we napped, had dinner, packed and prepared for the midnight pick-up for our 3:20AM departure for home, via London.

I’m posting this from the Business Class Lounge in London. Final post will be a reflection on the trip. If you’re still with us, you might as well stick around and find out whether we had a good time.

Bullet Baba and the Road to Delhi

October 31

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, how many of you know the story of Bullet Baba? Okay, then, listen up.

On Dec 2, 1991, a young man named Om Banna was riding his motorcycle on the road 33 miles from Jodhpur when he lost control, hit a tree and was killed. The bike was taken to the police station, but the next morning, it appeared mysteriously again at the accident site. It was taken back to the police station several times, chained and fuel removed, but each time it reappeared at the accident site. To commemorate this miracle, a temple was built at the accident site and each day hundreds of people come to pray, bring offerings, touch the bike which is housed there and take photos of strange people like us with their phones. This, it is thought, will assure the devotees of safe passage in their journeys. Here was the scene today.So, if you’ve been to India, seen the Taj, but missed Bullet Baba, that’s a damn shame. We saw it only because our driver from Jawai to the Jodhpur airport, Manu, knew about it and asked whether we’d like to stop. Of course, we would. One of the things I love about India is that there are thousands of tales of Bullet Babas to be found, each of them ardently believed and deeply meaningful to the faithful.

After a relaxed breakfast outside at our camp, we ride some 31/2 hours to Jodhpur, are met at the airport and spend a very long time standing in line to clear security for our flight to Delhi. Actually, I spend a very long time in line. Carol whizzes right through, because, in payback for the lines at restrooms, they’ve devised a system with a separate line for women. Carol cleared security a good 35 minutes before I did.

We’re met at the Delhi airport and driven an hour to our hotel, one of my all time favorites, The Imperial, arriving around 6PM. Air quality is very poor. Delhi is reputed to have the worst pollution of any major city in the world. Our guide says that it’s because of Diwali, all the firecrackers, but that sounds fishy to us. The Imperial is a decadent colonial-era hotel that has been upgrade with modern amenities. Just my type a place.

We go down to one of the four restaurants for dinner, then relax and retire.

Shepherds and (Finally) Leopards

October 30

Set in a dramatic location of ancient craggy outcrops and fields of mustard and wheat bordered by the Lake, Jawai is the perfect area to explore the Indian countryside.  The area is the home of the Rebari tribes, traditionally herders.  The men are known for wearing white offset by bright red turbans and the women for their bright clothes and bangles.

We awaken early today to take a safari, searching for leopards amongst the towering boulders and cliffs. No leopards, but beautiful, rugged countryside, birds, peacocks.And interesting, very friendly people. Such a pleasure to be riding around in the Jeep.After I have breakfast (Carol is waiting for lunch to eat), we set off with our ranger, Ram, and an employee of our hotel who comes from the village we’ll be visiting, first to find and walk with a shepherd and, after we get the hang of shepherding, to give him a few pointers. Some goats go to considerable length to reach their food.

Afterwards, we go into a rather clean and prosperous-looking village, where we meet some villagers, including women with many bangles, climb up to see a temple, busy with Diwali visitors and happen upon men playing a kind of dice game. We are not the only ones interested in taking photos of interesting-looking people; we are often the subject matter.It’s gotten quite hot, so we are happy to return to the camp, where Carol has lunch and I go for a swim, before departing on our 4:30 game drive, once again searching for leopards among the craggy rocks.   As we start out, it begins to drizzle, and Ram considers turning back to camp, but we continue.

Not long after, Ram gets word of a leopard sighting, tells us to hang on, and tear asses over very bumpy roads to the sight, which is full of bushes, trees and large, craggy rocks. Many other jeeps have gathered, in fact eighteen at one point. Ram is able to locate the leopard and cub, well hidden and a long way off. They move from time to time, making it even more difficult to find them. Carol spots them, better than I can, but we’re still barely able to see them. At least we’d be able to tell folks that we’d seen leopards, but not in a very satisfying way.

As the sun is setting, we take off and drive up a stony hill for a spectacular view of Lake Jawai at sunset.

After sunset, Ram says he has an idea and wants to look for the leopards again. It’s pitch dark, but by shining a flashlight (not really cricket), he finds the mother leopard and cub, and we’re able to see them clearly, with no other jeeps around. This is fun and exciting. For the first time on this trip, not having my camera prevents a better photo (though even if I’d had my camera, it wouldn’t have been much). As it is, here’s proof, at least, that we saw a damn leopard.

Not my best leopard photo. For comparison, here’s one taken about fifteen years ago that appears in Carol and my book, No Secret Where Elephants WalkAfter tonight’s sighting, in a stunningly sensible decision, Carol and I decide not to arise at 5:30 tomorrow for a final game drive, but to sleep in, and pack and have breakfast at leisure. Pretty mature, huh?

“Finishing” Jodhpur,and on to Jawai.

October 29

A view from our breakfast table during our final meal at this fabulous palace.And a view of the front of our palace.Of all the many forts in Rajasthan, very few compare to majesty of the Mehrangarh Fort.  The fort is divided into three sections – the public areas, the Maharajas palaces, and the zenana, or queens’ palaces. The zenana is decorated with exquisite sandstone filigree work. Here are views of and from the fort.

Within the fort is the museum, guarded by this colorful fellow,which among its varied exhibits has an excellent collection of royal palanquins and the howdah section which has perhaps the finest collection of old ornate elephant howdahs in the world. Carol and I are blown away by the incredible color, detail and artistry of the miniature paintings.

After the fort, we visit Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, spread over 72 hectares, nearby. The park contains ecologically restored desert and arid land vegetation. Sure nature’s the nuts, but walking around, and up and down, in heat and high humidity for more than an hour is overdoing nature, in my opinion. I use my walking sticks and, while I did okay, don’t expect to see me in the walking stick finals at the Tokyo olympics next year. There are birds, most of whom are sensible enough not to show their beaks in the heat. Here’s my best wildlife shot at the park. Carol, of course, liked the park, though she admitted that it wasn’t exactly comfortable.

After an excellent lunch, at an upscale and nicely air conditioned restaurant we head for Jawai. As we’ve jettisoned our guide, Praveen, after lunch, we are now only with our driver, Manu, who, it turns out, speaks much more English than we’d thought. We detour from the road for fifteen or twenty minutes to visit a village in which a resident (whose foot has been injured by his buffalo) demonstrates making opium tea for us. He offers us a taste and, after accepting, we begin to look like this.Here are photos of the outside and inside of our tea maker’s house.We also stop to see an excellent rug weaver nearby. Carol resists buying any, just because we have no conceivable place to use them. This decision seems to me to lack imagination, but, being the compliant husband that I am, I accede.

Here’s a scene from the back of a truck we get behind in a town not far from Jawai.And here are some folks on a motorcycle, stopped at a railroad crossing, where a crowd has gathered, because a few hours earlier, somebody had been struck and killed by a train.We stay at Hotel Jawai, in African style tents with wonderful views of the grasslands and the landscape. Here’s the backdrop for the camp.

We are transferred from our van to a Jeep to be transported to the camp, which is a Relais & Chateaux property. We’re greeted by the managers and shown to our tent, which has a separate bathroom area, hot water, electricity, air conditioning and WiFi.

The name of the WiFi network at Jawai is “Ruin my holiday.” In an ultimate irony, I learn that the WiFi is out in our condo at home by reading am email from our building manager while seated by the campfire tonight in the desert in India.

We have an excellent dinner and retire to our tent to prepare for an early safari tomorrow morning.