Take off day, minus a couple

We plan our trips so far in advance, that it’s usually a bit of a shock when they finally come around. That’s sorta fun, though; makes it a surprise trip. site analysis This one is no exception. I’m still down in Sarasota, Carol just left after spending a long MLK Day weekend here and tomorrow I leave for Chicago to prepare for takeoff two days later. Main purpose of this post, though, is to try out the new blog. If you’re reading this, it worked. See you soon, in India.

Aloft, Jan 20-21

Warning: if you’re into learning about India, you may want to skip this post. But, if you’re willing to wallow in the travails of travel, and indulge a bit of background, read on.

You’d figure that leaving home 3 1/2 hours prior to flight time would be plenty of time for a half hour taxi ride to the airport, but not necessarily so, in a driving Chicago snow storm. In the first hour and a quarter we covered what would normally have taken ten minutes. A check of the flight time online in the taxi revealed that it’s on schedule, as planes always are when you may be running late. Skillful driving by our regular and highly reliable airport driver, Clifton, managed to get us to O’Hare by 6:20 PM, for our 7:55 flight, and we sailed through check in and security in good time.

After sharing a tasty tuna wrap at the gate, a check of the flight time shows a delay of two hours. This would leave us an hour layover to make the switch in planes, if the 2-hour delay does not get extended. Not exactly a relaxing start, but, at least our flight has not (yet) been cancelled, as was our November flight to Ghana. But these are the joys of air travel and, if I’ve gained any maturity–something my daughters would not concede–it’s in recognizing that there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

Boarded on schedule to be only two hours late, but de-icing and various other activities made our lift-off four hours behind schedule, almost midnight. Since our layover was to be three hours, we may not make it to Mumbai, when planned. Luckily, I’m mature.

Well, anyway, we’re aloft, but a long, long way from India. We’re flying Etihad Airways. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but it turned out to be the most economical (that sounds better than cheapest, doesn’t it). Since Etihad is the airline of The Emirates, it means that we need to fly through Abu Dhabi, but, hey, nothing’s perfect. In a scant fourteen hours we’ll be there, then on to Mumbai, maybe. It’s Friday evening (now Saturday morning), and we aren’t scheduled to arrive in Mumbai until early Sunday morning. That’s a pretty long time in coach, but our frequent flier status on Etihad is not exactly platinum.

We’re looking forward to our trip for two reasons. First, India is fabulous, teeming with life, color, religion and “foreignness”. In short, exotic. For the past dozen years or so, Carol and I have leaned to the exotic, though, at least initially, that was not a conscious objective. It’s not that Europe, for example, is not wonderful. Of course, it is. But, for us, it doesn’t carry the same sense of excitement that traveling to a country with a totally different culture, look and feel does.

Our first trip to India, in 2006, took us to the North of India, and was quite mind-blowing. To give you an idea, the Taj Mahal probably ranked about fourth in our favorite experiences. I’d rank the 2006 trip we took with our friends, Joe and Madeline Wikler, who we’d met several years earlier on a biking trip to New Zealand, as among the very best trips we’ve taken. Carol loved it, but would rank it a bit lower. But I’m writing this, so it was among our very best. Carol and I returned to India for a short time in 2009, en route to Nepal and Bhutan, and I spent another four or five days there, in the Kulu Valley, on my return trip to Bhutan in 2010.

The second reason we are looking forward to the trip so much is that most of it will be spent with our good friends, Steve Sugarman and Karen Carlson, from California. (I’ll refer to them as the Sugarmans from time to time, though that’s not strictly accurate.). Steve was a law school classmate and friend, who spent considerable time sleeping in our flat in London, when Carol and I lived there in 1967-68, and Steve was engaged in various projects in London. He and I collaborated on an article on British antitrust law that was published in the Stanford Law Review, back in 1969 (egads, forty-three years ago). When Steve’s not on what seems to some of his friends to be a perpetual sabbatical or leave, he teaches law at Boalt Hall (Berkeley), where he’s been a fixture (albeit a very mobile one) for forty years. Karen teaches ESL, and is a thoroughly delightful and adventurous companion. We’ve taken short trips with the Sugarmans in the US, but Carol and I bowed out of the Egypt/Jordan trip we’d planned with them, because of its proximity (two years ago) to our grandson, Jasper’s, birth. So, the prospect of extended time with Steve and Karen holds great appeal to us.

The Sugarmans have been to the North of India (having gone shortly before we did and given us some excellent tips), but neither of us have been to the South, so we’ll explore it together. Because Steve and Karen have been to Mumbai, they’re going someplace else while we’re in Mumbai, and we’ll meet a few days later.

Actually, Carol and I were supposed to have gone to Mumbai in 2009, but a few months before our trip, the Taj Mahal, where we were to have stayed, was invaded by terrorists. Despite my assurances to Carol that the Taj would then have been the safest place in the world after the attack (which I sincerely believed), she decided that she would not be comfortable there, so we stayed in and around Delhi. This time, though, we’re headed to the Taj, hopefully “hold the terrorists.”

We’re confident that this will be another great trip, as we’ve planned it again with the aid of the fabulous travel agent in Delhi that we’ve used three times before, Shonali Datta of Peirce & Leslie. I’ll resist recounting stories here of why we love Shonali, but if any of you following this blog are contemplating a trip to India, let me know, and I’ll tell you why she’s so great.

Flight to Abu Dhabi long, but uneventful. Plane landed a few minutes after our flight to Mumbai began boarding. Long walk, aided by moving sidewalks, past very upscale shops, got us to the gate in time. As to our bags, stay tuned; we’ll see in Mumbai.

Bottom line: despite terrible roads and snow getting to O’Hare, a 4-hour delay in takeoff to Abu Dhabi, and a delay taking off from Abu Dhabi, we arrive in Mumbai six minutes behind schedule and, after waiting half an hour for pretty-much all the luggage to be unloaded, with our bags (perhaps due to the delay leaving Abu Dhabi). We are met at the Mumbai airport by Wamed, the Peirce & Leslie representative, who walks us out to an unauthorized loading area to be picked up by our driver, cautioning us that we must enter the vehicle very quickly, to avoid being ticketed by the police. We load quickly, but not quickly enough, as, despite a vigorous argument, Wamen pays either a fine, or a bribe, and we are on our way to the truly fabulous Taj Mahal Hotel.

En route at 5 AM, we see a large produce market begin to come to life, great-looking vegetables being unloaded. A bit farther along the way, we see women with large baskets, making their way to the dock to purchase fresh fish.

At the hotel, we are greeted and blessed, red-dotted and garlanded at reception in the old, palace portion of the hotel, then shown up to our large and luxuriously-appointed suite. The pictures I hope I’m about to attach below don’t do it justice.

Before ending our 25-hour door-to-door trip and going to sleep (collapsing), the private butler for our floor, brings in two freshly squeezed orange juices. I have always preferred private butlers to terrorists as attendants.

20120122-102142.jpg

20120122-102237.jpg

Playing it by ear, Mumbai, January 22

After about three very welcome hours sleep, we awoke before the call we’d left. Finished yesterday’s blog, coffee brought into the room, then an excellent buffet breakfast in the Sea Lounge.

Down in the lobby, we are greeted by the Peirce & Leslie representative du jour and, shortly thereafter, introduced to our guide, Joshua, who tells us the plan for the day, which involves a good deal of looking at Victorian buildings. I tell him that, while buildings are okay, we’re really much more interested in people.

Joshua “gets it” right away and proceeds to change the bulk of what we do for the day. This flexibility to change is one of the great advantages of planning your own itinerary, either alone, or with one other couple. Instead of walking by and into a bunch of buildings, we drove by them. Instead of visiting the Victoria Terminus on a Sunday, we drove by and will experience its bustle tomorrow, on a week day.

We drove to an area called Bon Ganga. Where Lord Rama is alleged to have shot an arrow (“Bon”) and produced water (Ganges). We walked around the area, visiting a small Hindu shrine, where various different ceremonies were taking place simultaneously. We walked around a residential area, saw a small outside community laundry business being conducted (we’ll see a much larger version tomorrow), went into a local home, watched children play on a playground and young boys playing cricket on a field and looked inside, but could not enter, a Jain Temple. The Jains are believers in complete non-violence, to the extent of wearing cloths around their mouths to prevent their breath from doing harm or from accidentally harming insects. They eat nothing that grows below ground. We learned about the Farsi people, who do not either bury or burn their dead, but place them ceremoniously on mounds (the Towers of Silence) to be eaten by vultures, and we drove near the site. Since we’d expressed interest in the slums, Joshua walked us through a small portion of a small slum, taking pains to point out that the residents were hard workers who kept their homes clean. We watched a boy on a rooftop, losing the kite he was flying in a kite fight. All of these tastes of real life, was far more interesting to us than what our original schedule would have been.

20120123-153521.jpg

20120123-153839.jpg

The rest of the day, we walked in a garden area and saw the coast around Mumbai, called the Queen’s Necklace because of its shape and the sparkling effect of the lights at night. Situated on the Arabian Sea, Mumbai has a pleasant feel to it that belies a city of some twenty million people.

We next went to the home at which Ghandi stayed when he lived in Bombay (the name of the city was changed to Mumbai in 1996, in which Joshua said was a purely political move, intended to show that the city was no longer run by the British, who gave it the name). The home has been converted to a fascinating museum that houses pictures of Ghandi, letters from and to him and many dioramas depicting important events in Ghandi’s life. Very worthwhile, and well executed.

We went to the prince of Wales Museum (now called something else) which houses a great collection of various different styles and periods of miniature paintings, which Joshua explained to us. There was also an interesting room of paintings and sculptures of Krishna the ninth incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu (some say Buddha was the tenth). We visited a couple modern art galleries, but the modern art museum was closed because their exhibits were being changed.

Returning to the hotel around four, Carol and I partook of the lavish high tea spread put on daily by the hotel. Carol met a woman named Sue Bard from New York, who was alone, because her husband was not feeling well. what is domain . We visited with Sue, who joined us at our table and then we headed back to the room to clean up, relax and blog before being picked up at seven for our dinner tonight.

We were driven out almost an hour to dinner in the nice residential area of Branda at the apartment of Anil and Ninaz Pathak, which Shonali (the travel agent I raved about yesterday) arranged for us. En route, our driver, Mohammed, who I suspect would love to be a guide, pointed out a beautiful and beautifully lit Muslim hospital, the most expensive home in the world, a $2 billion structure that looks like an apartment building, but houses only a wealthy family and several brightly-lit areas where large weddings were taking place. The traffic seemed heavy and harrowing to us, but Mohammed described it as light because it was Sunday evening.

We spent a wonderful evening with Anil, Ninaz, and their friends, Lalita and Roger, who they invited over to join us. All were involved in the travel business, Anil as Chairman of Peirce & Leslie, Ninaz who works with the head oh human resources of Singapore Air, and Lalita and Roger, who were both flight attendants with Air India. All are in their fort ties and the lively conversation ranged from travel to US politics to Disney Cruises, which Lalita and Roger would like to take their small children on. Ninaz prepared an excellent dinner of fish and chicken, we drank a very nice Indian Cabernet and had cocoanut and green apple ice creams for dessert. Anil’s grasp of, and thoughtfulness about his business were both impressive and exciting to me. He clearly gets what we travelers are after. We brought Anil and Ninaz a copy of NO SECRET WHERE ELEPHANTS WALK and all four of them loved looking at it.

Our driver, who had waited three and a half hours, picked us up and we drove back, the weddings we’d passed en route still going strong. We passed colorful, lit horse-drawn carriages on the waterfront, as we pulled into our hotel to retire.

Wallas, wallas everywhere, Mumbai, January 23

Breakfast in the hotel, joined by Sue and her accountant-husband, Herb, who was feeling much better. They got up earlier than they needed to in order to have breakfast with us.

Picked up at 9AM by Joshua and our driver, Mohammed. First stop was the Victoria Terminus, a most impressive building from the outside, but rather disappointing inside. Hustle and bustle was not especially “bustlely” and there was no central hall to compare to any of many we’ve seen in the US. Still, the fact that about a million of Bombay’s five or so million daily railroad commuters pass through it is noteworthy.

20120124-031503.jpg

Joshua is quite involved in, and very knowledgable about, the Jewish community in India, which now is primarily in Bombay, where some 4000 live. He told us of the two communities in Bombay, an ancient one, of which he is a descendant, called Bene Israel which fled Israel when Antiochus came, and a Baghdadi community, which came from Persia much later. The Sassoon family was part of the latter group and acquired great wealth, first through the opium trade with China (for tea sold to the British), and later through textiles and then banking. Most of the Baghdadi community has now emigrated to England, the US or Israel. Hostility between the two Jewish communities no longer exists.

The Sassoons were responsible for building two of the three synagogues we visited this morning, the Magen David and Knesset Elyahu. The other, Tipheteth Israel is a Bene Israel synagogue.

20120124-031854.jpg

All three were quite attractive, two of them having balconies for women congregants. Joshua also spoke of the beautiful, but virtually defunct, synagogue we will see in Cochin, and of others, as well. He knew of the Bene Ephraim group that I spoke to Shonali about our visiting in the South, before I concluded that it would be too difficult to do for this trip. His friend, Sharon, who we met outside one of the synagogues, works for ORT in Mumbai and has visited and helped the very poor Bene Ephraim community. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach Sharon later to try to talk to him about Bene Ephraim.

From the synagogues, we drove to see the Dhobi Ghat, an enormous cooperative open air laundry, similar to the one we saw yesterday, but much larger. Laundry is collected by laundrymen, dhobiwallas, and brought to the ghat where different types of laundry is washed by different people and somehow sorted out through small markings and, rather miraculously, returned from whence it came.

20120124-032206.jpg

An even more amazing version of this type of business are the Dabbawallas, who we saw outside the Church Gate railway station. Every morning the Dabbawallas call on homes in the suburbs to pick up “Dabbas” or lunch boxes of home cooked food prepared for office goers who left at the crack of dawn to take commuter trains into the city. Transporting these lunches on local trains, they gather at Church Gate station to segregate them area wise before they are delivered. Each lunch box looks exactly alike, but without any modern technological equipment, more than 50,000 lunches are delivered on time daily to the correct recipient. It is a system based on memorized codes and leg muscles as they load multiple boxes on to coffin size trays and rush them through the chaos of Mumbai to the correct offices, usually on bicycles.

20120124-032725.jpg

20120124-033008.jpg

20120124-033117.jpg

The Dabbawallas have been studied by The Harvard Business School as an example of teamwork. It is truly amazing to see. As we were watching them, who should pull up in another car but Sue and Herb, our breakfast companions, and their guide Hanna–who happens to be Joshua’s wife! We think Joshua is terrific, have exchanged contact information and hope to stay in touch.

We visited a couple of other modern art galleries with little success, so we abandoned the effort and instead headed for the vegetable, textile, pet and gold markets, walking around to observe and photograph. We returned to the hotel to pack up, blog, email and have a short high tea, before being picked up to head for the airport for our 6:45 flight to Aurangabad.

Driving here is harrowing, a constant beeping of horns, with four lanes regularly converted into six as cars, tuk-tuks and motor cycles stratal the lane markers, which appear to be mere suggestions. We marvel that we don’t see the roadways strewn with the bodies of the unhelmeted motorcyclists who weave in and out at high speeds.

Mumbai is quite an appealing city, and I’d happily return, as we have just scratched the surface. It’s location on the water gives it an open feel that Delhi lacks.

Flight to Aurangabad is short (less than an hour) and uneventful. Our hotel, the Taj Residence, is quite nice, but pales, as almost every hotel in the world would, as compared to the Taj Palace in Mumbai. Security is serious. After checking in, we have a really excellent meal outdoors at the hotel, then return to the room to retire.

Caving in–Day one, Aurangabad, January24

Nice buffet breakfast at the hotel. Picked up by our guide, Ali, and driver, for a day at Ajanta. We’d come to Aurangabad to see the caves at Ajanta and, tomorrow, the caves at Ellora. As you’ll read, Ajanta is spectacular, but first some reflections on what we see and learn when we travel, borne from the two-hour rides to and from Ajanta.

After fifteen minutes or so of our ride, having had only very limited and brief conversation with Ali, I asked him a question, he answered and I thanked him and said that we’d be interested in hearing anything he’d like to comment on as to what we were passing along the way. This simple invitation unleashed a wealth of commentary, Ali telling us that it would be his privilege and honor to talk about these things, if he would not be getting on our nerves. I said that I’d make him a deal, we’d tell him if he was getting on our nerves and, otherwise, he should assume that we were interested in what he was talking about. It’s clear that, had we not invited his comments, most of the four hours there and back would have passed in silence.

This invitation also opened up a connection between us, as Ali, learning that we were from Chicago, told us that he’d spent two years there, and knew and loved the city well. We began talking about things in the city and he mentioned Brookfield Zoo. We asked whether he’d been there and he said, yes, that he’d seen Bengal tigers there. We said that we’d seen Bengal tigers in Khana National park in central India on our first trip, and we all laughed at the irony of him coming to see Bengal tigers in Chicago and us going to his country to seek them out.

It’s a good question as to what travelers learn about any place they go to. In India, we saw some highlights of Mumbai, we’ll see the caves, we’ve visited fascinating places on our previous trip, such as Varanasi, Delhi, Agra and Udaipur, seen a camel fair in Pushkar and attended an Indian wedding. But, despite the fact that Mumbai and Delhi, together, hold more than 40 million people, Ali told us that 70% of the Indian population is in villages. So, in a sense, we won’t see the real India, and that’s true, too, of the way most of us travel in most countries. (As an aside, Carol and I have been privileged to visit and meet and talk with people in rural villages in both trips we’ve made to Ghana with our good friends, Dick and Susie Kiphart. That’s been fabulous, but, even then, we’re only able to spend very limited time there.)

But, despite our limitations, let me try to give you a brief description of what we learned from/saw with Ali today. Towns teeming with activity because of market day, held on rotating days in villages to give the many people who live in villages far from cities and roads the opportunity to sell and buy goods. Numerous small groups of teepee and tent-like structures, often roofed with tarps, lived in by migrant workers, who leave their villages for eight months a year (returning for the four monsoon months) to work the farms of wealthier people. Many of their children are delivered by midwives in these temporary quarters. Sugar cane and cotton are the main crops. Cotton piled in fields near gin mills. Tiny temples by the roadside for farmers to worship their gods during breaks in their day. Dry river beds of “seasonal” rivers filled in monsoon season. Roadside crematoriums outside towns. Teak, castor, arcadia and banyan trees, which drop roots and grow new trees (“walking” trees). Ghandi white hats worn by farmers (and yesterday’s dabbawallas), a style chosen by Ghandi and continued by Nehru because the hats are simple, cheap, and not Brittish. Cricket match played on a field strewn with litter and encircled by motor bikes of “fans.” Driving on these 2-lane roads is a perpetual game of chicken, encountering other cars, buses, people riding two (or more) to a motor bike, no helmets, women on the back wearing colorful saris, ox-drawn carts, trucks piled high with grains, cotton and people.

All this and more, before even getting to the caves, located two hours from Aurangabad, a modest-sized Indian city of some two million. The caves at Ajanta date from 200 BC to 650 AD and are cut from the volcanic lavas of the Deccan Trap in a steep crescent shaped hillside in a forested ravine. Carol and I elected to forego the easier way to enter the site, instead hiking down from a ridge opposite the site. We’ll undoubtedly pay the price with aches tomorrow, but think it was a good decision.

At the height of its importance, the Ajanta Caves housed over 200 Buddhist monks some of them artists as well as numerous craftsmen and laborers. These caves or vihararas are remarkable for the quality of their carvings and their murals which relate the life story of The Buddha and reveal images of the royal court, ordinary family life, and street scenes. Some of the cave murals relate to the Buddha’s previous births.

It’s impossible to convey just how astounding these monasteries and caves, carved out of a mountain of basalt stone are. The whole complex is essentially a single block of stone. The site is owned by the Indian government and as a World Heritage Site is governed by rules of UNESCO. what is a domain Rather than babble on with more words, I’ll just attach a bunch of photos to try to give some idea of what I’m talking about.

20120124-214417.jpg

20120124-214507.jpg

20120124-214609.jpg

20120124-214700.jpg

20120124-214755.jpg

Sorry, but that’s about the best I can do right now.

After arriving back at the hotel late in the afternoon, Carol had a massage and I swam briefly and sat by the pool. We had a lavish Indian barbecue buffet dinner outdoors at the hotel, and were treated to a quite delightful local dance performance by three engaging and brightly-costumed dancers.

If I ever finish this blog, I’m going to collapse and join Carol, who had the good sense to crash a while ago.