I came to India without expectations, partly because over the years, I heard such conflicting information—from the emotional toll to the physical difficulties. I read books on India, saw movies and documentaries. Before our trip, we welcomed, and gratefully listened to advice on food, water and shoes—and we got conflicting information. With all that, nothing prepared me for the first taxi ride to the hotel. I arrived alone and at rush hour. People on foot, bike, motorbike, tuk tuk, cars, trucks, vans, busses and later, ox-carts! By the time I left the country, at least I got the driving thing—just honk, go and keep moving, space will appear, don’t be polite, you’ll confuse everyone.
Ultimately, we made our own way, with endless help from Deepa, the owner of India Magic Tours, our guides, especially Freni and Ragesh, our drivers, and our guardian angel, Suresh.
I have never traveled like this before. I have backpacked, camped and stayed at the Pierre. I usually plan my own trips. (Last year I relied on Boby and he planned an amazing trip for us, (me, Boby and Gage) in Cambodia and Burma. I don’t like group tours, though I’ve been on many, and led even more. I never thought I could afford a private tour. Thank goodness, Ronni knew better, and we managed an affordable (very) trip tailored to our specific desires and expectations. Magic India Tours was always making sure we were safe and accounted for. Every hotel knew we were arriving, and had been contacted by Magic India just prior to our arrival. Each driver had our itinerary and checked it against ours.
What I do know is that India not a place to visit once. We saw a small fraction of the country, and of that, we saw it under one set of conditions. I was grateful to travel with Ronni and Pinchas. We share many of the same interests and Ronni gained a shopping partner. When Ronni and I were stumped by our guide’s questions, Pinchas came through with a brilliant answer, or an even better question. I read aloud relevant stories of the dieties while we were driving to temples. Ronni kept us up to date on current Indian politics by reading aloud from the newspaper. Too often, my stories of the dieties and their troubles sounded exactly like the issues in the daily news.
By having long conversations with our guides and drivers, we learned something about attitudes toward local politics and politicians. There is a sometimes ruling Communist Party in Kerela. There is a less successful Communist Party in Tamunadil. The top Community Party politician in Tamudadil changed his name to Stalin. (That’s just stupid) The chief Minister of Tamunadil is a woman named Jayalalithaa. She added the final “a” to her name after consulting with her astrologist. Her name and picture is plastered all over Tamunadil. She supports and sponsors everything EVERYTHING that goes on in her state. She is lovingly referred to as Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader) or as Amma (mother). She is not to be confused with the Hindu spiritual leader and guru, Amma, who is revered as a saint by her followers and widely respected for her humanitarian activities. Amma’s face is posted all over Chennai (capital city of Tamunadil) as she is soon to appear there. You might have heard of her as the hugging guru. She has hugged over 32 million people.
With our guides and drivers, we talked about the intricacies of arranged marriages. We learned that the caste system is illegal, but in the Karola paper, there are ads for arranged marriages according to caste. All our drivers and most of our guides were in arranged marriages. Even if they met their spouses on line, on their own, they come back and go through the proper “arranged marriage” steps.
I learned the extent of tolerance, especially from the Hindus we spoke with. (Unless you are left-handed…)
I learned that although I can’t drink the water, my hair loves it. Never been so soft…
I thought I only brought home pictures, but I just opened my suitcase, and it appears I brought home the smells of India as well…
I expected the country to be an explosion of color. It was.
I expected friendly people, and was blown away by the kindness, generosity, curiosity and frankness of most everyone we encountered.
I expected to get at least a little sick. I did not (I’m not counting my cold). I’m not over Indian food, but I might have to have a hamburger soon.
I love my new clothes, and though they might look a bit odd in LA, I’m not sure I care.
Our photographs are all over India; we posed with children, their parents and their grandparents. I stopped worrying about taking pictures of people when I realized people were taking far more pictures of us.
I’m sorry my family was not with me—all of them.
I thought of them every day. They would have loved it.