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Sunday, May 6, 2012

India

When I was first in radio in Charleston, West Virginia a tragedy in India was my first big break in the business.  I had been on vacation with my family in the summer of 1985 at Dillon State Park near Zanesville Ohio.   Upon getting back to the Capitol City of West Virginia, I was called into the radio station right away.  That day, a chemical leak at the Union Carbide plant in Institute, just west of Charleston, forced an evacuation of a wide area and wound up with more than 100 people going to the hospital to be treated for mostly minor injuries, lung irritations and so forth. The story made international news, mainly because the chemical that leaked in West Virginia was a derivative of methyl isocyanate, which is what killed thousands of people when it leaked from the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal India about 8 months earlier.  It also caused a great deal of panic among the people of the area, with images of dead bodies, including many women and children, still fresh in people's minds.

Being a news anchor more than a reporter, I stayed at the radio station while we had a reporter at the site of the leak in Institute.  Stationed at the station, I took the phone calls from the networks that called, looking for reports.  I filed stories for ABC, NBC, CBS, CBC, NPR, some network in Ireland and the BBC.  (I remember that when I filed my report for NPR, the person on the other end of the line who was probably wearing a sweater vest and some really hip glasses said, "that's fine, but could you re-do it and try not to sound so excited?")  The network pay for the stories I filed made for a profitable few days.  I made over $800 filing and considering my take home pay for two weeks work at that time was somewhere around half of that, I was living large. 

Bhopal was not on the short list of our possible destinations in India.  One of the main reasons we chose India was because it was a more affordable stop as we headed west toward Europe. Plus, it was a place that we felt we really had to include on our itinerary.  Our airline ticket consolidator found us a decent fare from Penang, through China then to Delhi, so we were all in!

We had heard widely varying opinions of both Delhi and India as a whole before we left.  Some said we just had to spend some time in India and see as much as we could of some of the amazing sights that no where else in the world offered.  Others said April was the wrong time to go, that it would be way too hot.  One or two other people said don’t go to India at all, it’s a dirty nasty filthy place.   Our experience would end up being some of all of the above.

Our planning for India was done late into our time in China.  We were so busy seeing things and traveling from one place to another in China that we didn’t have much time to plan for the next portion of the trip.  I had sent out an inquiry to a company I found online, and the proposal they sent back was too pricey for us.  Our ticket consolidator asked in an email if we needed any help in India and when I replied in the affirmative, he hooked us up with a guy named Sabir.

We never actually met Sabir.  I think he’s kind of like Charley in Charley’s Angels.  I spoke to him a couple of times on the phone and he seemed nice enough.  As part of his package, he had a hotel in Delhi, another in Agra near the Taj Mahal, and another in Jaipur, which is the capitol of Rajasthan.  Those three destinations are known as the Golden Triangle and make up a popular route for visitors. 

Some research on Trip Advisor revealed negative reviews for the hotel he had selected for Agra, and Sabir made the change to a different hotel at our request.  Since we booked the entire trip late into our China visit, I had already reserved a room at a hotel in Delhi near the airport for our first night, since we were due to arrive after 9pm. 

Bad weather in China would delay our flight by almost four hours, so we got into Delhi at around 1:30am, local time, which was about 4am in the time zone in China that we had left that morning. 

Fatigue has a way of weakening one’s resolve to unfavorable situations.  Which is why Annie and the kids and I ignored the filthy conditions of the two rooms we booked at Hotel the Grace near the Delhi Airport.  Kedar, who would be our driver for our entire time in India, looked a little worn out himself as he got our luggage into his van and he managed to find our little slice of paradise. 

The bedsheets and bedspeads were dirty in both rooms and the walls needed a good scrubbing as well.  But there were no signs of bodily fluids or bed bugs so we toughed it out, knowing Kedar would be back to pick us up in about 8 hours.  Just to be clear, if you’re going to Delhi and need a place to stay near the airport, do NOT go to Hotel the Grace.  The airport has some nice reclining chairs all over the place, just sleep there and get a cab in the morning.  You're welcome.

Kedar met us the next morning after a terrible and late-arriving breakfast at the hotel you should not stay in, and he drove us about 20 minutes to the hotel we would be staying in that night, and again when we returned to Delhi about a week later.  When we got to the hotel, we met our guide for the day.  He introduced himself with a name that had way too many vowels and consonants, but who also did us the favor of saying we could just call him Mr. Singh. 

Mr. Singh took us to a couple of interesting spots right out of the gate.  One was an arch made out of sandstone to remember the soldiers who had died in World War I as well as in the war with Pakistan.  It reminded Annie and I a lot of the arch in Washington Square in New York City.
It was another chance to put our by now well-developed skill of ignoring vendors and beggars into action.  We’ve gotten that down pretty solidly after more than four months on the road.  I’ve even managed to maintain my indifference when grabbed from behind on the arm as I was by a woman at the arch in Delhi.  And we really didn’t need an umbrella or the hat that one vendor impolitely put on my head.

We carried out without umbrellas or hats to our next stop at the presidential palace.  It’s beautiful, surrounding by an iron fence and walls adorned with images of elephants.  Elephants are a common theme in India and seen as a symbol of good luck. 
I don’t know if it was the stone elephants or what, but a short time later, we had the best Indian food I’ve ever had at a restaurant in Delhi.  Fortunately for us and Marley before we left on the trip we started getting into Indian food, and Marley discovered that she really likes Garlic Butter Naan.  Naan is a thin, almost pizza-like bread that is served usually either plain, with butter or with butter and garlic.  Marley ate several pieces of garlic butter naan, while Annie and I loved some Butter Chicken and Lamb Rogan Josh and Ben enjoyed some grilled chicken.  Good to eat some great Indian food in India.

Our first full day in Delhi concluded with a stop at the Lotus Temple, which is also called the Bahai Place of Worship.  It’s a beautiful building with a design reminiscent of the Opera House in Sydney.  People of all faiths are welcome to pray there and we joined the several hundred others making a late-day stop for some peaceful reflection.
The next day introduced us to two of the most memorable and amazing things in India.  One was the Taj Mahal.  The other was traffic in India.  In attempting to describe what it’s like to be in a car or van or SUV in India, I’m struggling to find a word that goes beyond chaos.  The only way I can imagine people driving like this in the States is if everyone decided to drive with their eyes closed.   Our driver, Kedar, showed amazing dexterity and patience in navigating the streets, roads and highways leading from Delhi to Agra. 
We learned that there is one basic rule of the road in India:  There are no rules.  And we learned that the locals say you need three things to drive in India:  A good horn, good brakes and good luck.  Drivers change lanes at random and whenever the mood seems to strike them, and seem fine coming within inches of the car in front, behind or beside them. 

In city situations,  drivers jockey for position with horns sounding constantly.  Cars vans and trucks compete with  motorcycles and tractors hauling huge bundles of grain as well as with wooden two-wheeled carts being pulled by camels.  Just moments after I took this photo, this cart was rear-ended by a small car behind it.  That led to some yelling with the driver of the car seemingly blaming it on a small child who had apparently crawled on his lap.  The car took the worst of it, with some damage done to the grill and hood, but no injuries and no call to police, no exchanging of drivers license and insurance information. 

Once you get out on the highway, it gets even nuttier.  The “no rules” mantra really comes into play.  It’s very common to encounter a motorcycle coming the other way on your side of a two-lane divided highway.  And more than once, we came across one of the massive flatbed trucks that are colorfully decorated, coming directly at us in what would be the high speed lane.  Kedar just chuckled as if to say, “what are you going to do?” and deftly dodged the oncoming truck. 

Another thing that happens very often is cars or trucks making a u-turn or entering the lane of traffic you are in just plowing right in front of you, causing you to brake suddenly or make a quick turn to avoid a collision.  Sometimes those last-second manuevers don't work as we saw more than once.
I’m gonna get to the Taj Mahal, but I would be remiss as your faithful world correspondent if I didn’t spend at least some time describing the trash situation on the streets.  Trash is EVERYwhere.  I mean everywhere.  And it’s not just the random plastic bottle or fast food bag that we’re used to see blowing around streets and highways in the States.  Huge piles of trash are left out all over the place and in many cases, you’ll see cows or pigs rooting through the trash. 
You kind of get used to it, but then again you kind of don’t.  Clearly it’s just part of the culture and way of life and there are garbage trucks seen from time to time.  But the sheer scope of the garbage is stunning and honestly a bit depressing.  At least for me.  As was the massive amount of poverty.  People living in tents and lean tos or on the sidewalk.  In Delhi and again in Jaipur, we saw men and women and sadly children sleeping on mats on the sidewalk in the middle of the day. 

We did see plenty of wildlife along the streets and highways.  Camels are a regular sight, sometimes pulling a two-wheeled tractor with a load of goods, other times they would be down on all fours, waiting for their next assignment.  The only thing we saw working harder than camels in India were women.  It’s very common to see the sight that we’ve all seen in National Geographic or the Travel Channel or in books:  women in beautiful saris, walking along with massive bundles on their heads.  Many times they would be carrying huge sacks of grain that would snap the neck of most people from Europe or the States. 

Another stereotypical sight that we saw a lot of was people hanging off the sides of various modes of transportation.  The most common one was about a dozen people jammed into a tuk-tuk, often hanging off the back or from the sides.  It would appear as though they would even be sitting on each other’s laps at times.  We also saw many, many local buses just filled to overflowing with people and some of them sitting up on top of the bus.  A local train that passed us by while we were in traffic on the street below a train trestle was also filled beyond capacity, with people sitting on the steps of the entrances and exits to the train cars. 
It couldn’t be a more fascinating place just to observe a completely different way of life.  And the best thing is, at this point of the trip with the many different societies and cultures that we’ve already seen in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and China--Marley and Ben just take it all in.  They never seem horrified by anything they see, and we’ve seen some things that we’ll never forget.

With all that freakiness as a backdrop, it makes seeing the Taj Mahal all that more spectacular.  Our guide for the Taj was named Hosain.  We felt a great connection with him right away.  He had an authoritative yet gentle countenance, with lively brown eyes and an easy way with all of us, especially Ben and Marley. 


He said he was one of only forty government guides in all of India.  We felt very confident with him as he led us through the crowded passageways that took us to the Taj. 

After pausing outside the main entrance to the Taj Mahal to give us some background, he did the coolest thing as he guided us inside.  There is a high wall with a gate that leads to your first view of the Taj, and he led us inside a corridor and off to the right, asking that we keep our eyes at the back of his feet.  Once inside the corridor, we could look up again, and he took the kids by the hand and told them to look at the ground again and walked them through the gate where he told them to look up and get their first view of the marvelous marble structure.  He then quickly returned to the interior of the corridor and had Annie and I do the same thing. 

When we emerged from the corridor, through the gate and lifted our eyes as directed by Kedar, we were confronted with a sight that was even more beautiful than the many photos we had seen of the Taj Mahal.  The marble structure gleamed in the late afternoon sun as Hossain pointed out intricate details as we got close enough to touch the glittering walls.

The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan, emperor during the Mughal empire's period of greatest prosperity.  He did it out of grief over the death of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child.  I guess it beats a bouquet of flowers at a gravesite.

The graves of the Shah and Mumtaz are inside the Taj Mahal and are fairly simple, yet still beautiful.  Hosain ran a penlight along the surface of the walls to show how some of the colorful ground down stones were translucent.  The attention to detail, especially considering the scope of the building is stunning.  The Taj Mahal sits on the banks of the Yamuna River, and there had reportedly been plans to build a black Taj Mahal on the other side of the river and connect the two by a bridge.

 
Whether or not the Black Taj Mahal was ever going to be built or not remains a subject of great debate, kind of like how it is among baseball fans with the DH, or Pete Rose being in the Hall of Fame.

The other major attraction in Agra is the Red Fort, which we settled on seeing from the outside.  Because really, after you've seen the Taj Mahal, everything else is just the Eiffel Tower at Kings Island.  So, the next morning it was back in the van with Kedar to take the plunge in Indian traffic and head toward Jaipur, the "Pink City" and capitol of the state of Rajasthan.

It's never easy following up seeing something as spectacular as the Taj Mahal, but the Amer Palace just outside Jaipur holds it's own.  It sits on a hillside just below a fort, that is protected by a wall that is 14 kilometers long, and has the appearance of a mini Great Wall of China.
The Amer Palace dates back to around 1592, about forty years before the Taj Mahal construction was started.  One option for getting into the fort is to ride in through the Royal Gate on an elephant.  While Marley and I stayed in the car and went in with our guide through the commoner's entrance, Annie and Ben made a truly royal entrance on top of a gentle giant.
The Amer Fort is another architectural marvel considering it dates back so many centuries.  It also is the home to many monkeys.  Several of them had tiny baby monkeys clinging to them as they jumped from spot to spot to gaze at the people who were gazing back at them.


Monkeys were also a common sight on the streets in and around Jaipur.  They aren't aggressive and are obviously accustomed to people, even those of us who aren't accustomed to seeing them.


We didn't see any monkeys at the hotel we were staying at but did see a peacock up in a nearby tree.  They have a very distinctive and very loud call and added to the ambiance of the exotic land we were enjoying.

A couple of days in Jaipur was all we had scheduled and all we really needed.  We had a flight out of Delhi booked in a couple of days, so with Kedar behind the wheel, we headed in the direction of the Indian capital.  

After seeing so many great sights the previous few days, we decided to take it easy our final day in Delhi.  We had the services of Kedar for that day, and since our flight left at 5am the next morning, we had decided to forego the expense of a hotel room that we would have to leave at around 1am.  So the plan was to go to a place that Ben had found online that sold Bugattis and Lamborghinis, and also make a quick visit to Old Delhi.

The salesman at the car dealership was very friendly and accommodating when we walked through the door and explained our story and that we just wanted to see what they had in stock.  

Ben was thrilled to see a Lamborghini Adventator up close but was disappointed to be told that the Bugatti had been sold a few weeks back.  The salesman also told us about a Ferrari dealer not too far away, so we decided to point our expedition in that direction.


We'll press "pause" on the proceedings for a moment for a question of you, dear reader.  Have you ever seen a tree in the middle of a parking lot that didn't have some sort of barrier around it so that, say a tour driver with some people from the States on board didn't back right into it?  Neither had we until we heard and felt a large crash as Kedar scored a direct hit on the tree.


Apparently the black sun shades in the back windows prevented him from being able to see the tree.  The impact completely shattered the window and left a pretty good dent in the back door.  You could tell the Kedar felt terrible about what happened, but we felt even worse when he said a different driver would be coming with a new van and that our time with him was done.


That news was a serious body blow for us.  We didn't realize how much we liked having Kedar be part of our India experience until we found out our time with hime was done.  He was a comforting security blanket in a country that can be a bit daunting to navigate.  His driving skills were excellent, and we always felt like he was Allstate for us.  Once we lost him, we lost much of our enthusiasm for the India portion of the proceedings. 


Our new driver, J.P. smashed into a motorcyclist within about five minutes of taking over for Kedar, leading to shouts and shaking fists.  He was nice enough but we had absolutely no karma with him.  He drove us through Old Delhi, which was very interesting.


We also made a quick stop at the Ghandi memorial.  It's for Mahatma, Indira and Rajiv.  Our focus was on the Mahatma portion which gave us more of a sense of peace after our disappointing farewell to Kedar.


India, as much as, if not more than any other stop on our trip has left an indelible impression on us.  As Paul Theroux writes, in India "the miracle…was that India was not a country but a creature, like a monstrous body crawling  with smaller creatures pestilential with people – a big, horrific being, sometimes angry and loud, sometimes passive and stinking, always hostile, even dangerous." That sums it up fairly well, even if I have no idea what pestilential means, it probably has something to do with pestilence, which I'm pretty sure we saw more than once there. However, I have to say that Indian people were very friendly to us, and even with the abject poverty in full view at almost every turn, are very proud of their country. 

India was a perfect closer for our time in Asia.  It's a complicated, thrilling, enthralling, intimidating and spectacular place.  Our trip would not be complete without a stop there.  It's a stop I'm very glad we made.  




 

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