Category Archives: India

Magical Mystery Tour: PART VIII (finale)

Mumbai Tuesday, March 10 – Thursday, March 12 We landed in Mumbai, the city of Slumdog Millionaire, and immediately began our tour with a cab driver Noel knew. IMG_6965 From the relative peacefulness of Kerala to the loud, smog-drenched city of Mumbai, we were in a bit of a culture shock. The air was chewable, like it had been in Delhi. No A/C in the cab so we got our lungs full in prep for our 48 hours here. IMG_6977 Our first stop was a five-minute sighting of the word’s largest, open-air laundromat, Dhobi Ghat. Dhobis are the traditional Indian laundry men, and their occupation is passed down through the families living here. Hotels and hospitals use this outdoor facility for clothes and sheets with open-air concrete baths called ghats and flogging stones. The process is: soak in sudsy water… thrash on the stones… boil in starch… hang to dry…then iron/fold. IMG_6987 IMG_6985 IMG_6988 After snapping a few shots we hopped back into the cab to reach Mohandas (later called Mahatma by others as it means “Great Soul” in sanskrit) Ghandi’s residence when he visited Mumbai. IMG_6990 The Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya is a home converted into a museum. In this home where he stayed when visiting Mumbai, Gandhiji (1869-1948) learned to card wool and to spin here. This man of nonviolence and civil disobedience began his fight against injustice when he was thrown off a train in South African 1893. He was riding in the whites-only section. His search for equality for Indians took him back to his native land in 1915 where he often visited Bombay (Mumbai). In this house on the terrace he was arrested in the early morning of January 4, 1932. IMG_7002 This museum, in addition to a chronological display of Gandhi’s life, houses a library, research institute auditorium and his room. Here, he used to live and work, and some of his artifacts are on display. IMG_7001IMG_7004 In the picture gallery we view photos of Gandhi from early years to later and read letters he had sent to world figures. Here he is reaching his destination at the end of the famous Salt March in Spring of 1930. Britain held a monopoly on the production and sale of this critical seasoning, forbidding Indians from competing, and heavily taxing it. Thus, this famous march became the symbol of Gandhi’s mass civil disobedience or “satyagraha” against British tyranny. Over 60,000 Indians were arrested after participating in this 240-mile walk. IMG_6999 And, here’s a photo of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). The latter represented the younger generation, and, although from completely different backgrounds, these two men shared a vision for India, one of independence from British rule. IMG_6993 One of the most poignant displays was this quote mourning his wife who died in captivity. IMG_6995 However, Gandhi wasn’t always the sparkling, pure hero that history has white-washed. This fighter for justice actually supported racial segregation. When protesting his treatment in South Africa he supposedly said ‘respectable Indians’ should not be made to use the same facilities as ‘raw Kaffirs’. Nice. At least the tactic of non-violent, civil disobedience was used by others who actually did fight again inequality, such as Martin Luther King. The next morning we arrived at a local train station to meet up with our Reality Tours guide who was going to take us into the largest slum in India, the second largest in Asia:  Dharavi. I had initially said ‘no thanks’ to doing this. It felt voyeuristic. But Max said read the company’s web page and Trip Advisor ratings. So, I did and was impressed. The business model for Reality Tours is set up for local development. Eighty percent of the profits go back to the community via their sister-NGO Reality Gives. That NGO reinvests the money into education programs where tours are run, such as in Dharavi. The tour guides are respectful of the inhabitants and ensure their customers are as well (we weren’t allowed to take photography and only stopped at pre-arranged places of business). The success of this social impact model has spread with other tour operators interested in replicating Reality Tours’ practices. Over a million people live in this area located in the middle of India’s financial capital Mumbai. The slum is split into commercial and residential areas. Millions of dollars (over $650 million) is generated by businesses contracting with local laborers, the bulk from recycling plastics, sewing apparel, and leather works. Unfortunately, almost all profits go back to the owners who live elsewhere and don’t reinvest in the workers or their working conditions. As Max noted one of the saddest memories he has is walking by a room where three young teens were squatting on the damp and dirty cement floor sorting plastic so quickly he could barely see their hands. We entered the residential area, walking into a dark, narrow warren of alleyways barely three feet wide. Our feet were squishing on planks sitting atop gray mud with electrical cords drooping down from the sides of curtained doorways. Glancing inside you’d see an old woman and young baby in a dimly lit, one-room apartment. No natural light made it down inside the alleys so you couldn’t really see where you were going. Thankfully the guide kept close tabs on all of us. We’d still be there if we’d lost him. Once out we breathed a sigh, then continued past a garbage heap, just missing a rat scurrying from the side of the building towards the trash. Then we came upon a more spacious area of apartments that actually faced some trees and had open-air balconies. Our guide explained this is where Hindus lived. When asked why they had the better living area, he said they were the first to populate the slum, and as more and more moved to Dharavi, the newcomers, such as the Moslems, got the less desirable dwellings. We only have three photographs, which were allowed:  two right before we entered, overlooking this huge area; IMG_7051IMG_7052 another in a manager’s office selling handbags. We had a wonderful mixed group of fellow tourists: IMG_7053two young guys from New Brunswick of all places (Andrea, you would have enjoyed them and they, you!), an aunt and her niece from Chile, and a young German couple. We ended up at the little gift shop where we purchased a few items including a t’shirt with one of the most informative clothing labels I’ve seen. IMG_7055 After the travel and tours we were ready for some R&R, and, boy, did we ever get it. The hotel Noel had booked for us was amazing. We didn’t want to leave our room. We were perched on the top floor, which overlooked this huge city. IMG_7040IMG_7044 Here Max is speaking with Noel while enjoying a non-ice G&T :) IMG_7047 I must admit we felt so privileged. To walk from the poverty-strewn streets into a posh hotel lobby, ride an elevator to our clean and air-condiionted room, turn on hot and cold running water, while considering what we wanted for dinner… well, it was an extreme comparison, and one with which we weren’t always comfortable. But, it didn’t keep us from enjoying as many amenities as we could! IMG_7067IMG_7061 We did stop in at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel where in 2008 ten terrorists murdered 257 people and injured 700. A memorial at our hotel reminded us of this horrific event, an event that is occurring with more frequency throughout the world. IMG_7057 It’s also the reason for the security measures seen around our hotel and many other tourist sites. IMG_7074 IMG_7076 While walking towards our hotel I spotted a sculpture that was a bit scary and odd. IMG_7071 It reminded me of a good friend’s gift from her oral-surgeon daughter:  a fridge magnet of an open brain… And, when I emailed this head to her she responded “No new magnets, but I will definitely ask for another.  Last week she went to a training conference in Tampa on some new plates for broken jaws.  They each got a human head, yes, only the head, to operate and practice on for the day.  Other body parts were given to other conferences for training.” Not something I could handle! After four weeks our journey to India was over, and as we rode to the Mumbai airport (another impressively designed building), IMG_7136 Max and I knew we wanted to return. I had expected to be intrigued by this country but not yearn to return. Yet, the unexpected happened, and we do want to return. I have a feeling in my soul we’ll do just that.

Magical Mystery Tour: PART VII

Kerala:  Mitraniketan in Vellanad

Monday, March 2 – Tuesday, March 9

After flying into Trivandrum’s airport trom Jaipur we were met by a nice guy from Mitraniketan (Mi-tra-knee-kee-ton). He ushered us into the Ambassador vehicle, a car synonymous with India. Manufactured by the Indian company, Hindustan Motors, since 1958, this car was styled on the British Morris series and was called “the king of the Indian roads” but the company was shut down in 2014 due to bankruptcy. In spite of it being a hot and humid night, it was a pleasant ride especially as we neared our destination in the small village of Vellanad, an hour NE of the airport.

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We were returning to the campus we had visited briefly at the beginning of our trip with Noel and Diana. Wanting to volunteer somewhere while in India, Noel arranged for the three of us to do so at the NGO, Mitraniketan. Diana would be helping them with a revised web site while Max and I would be working on development and marketing plans for a U.S. Friends of Mitraniketan organization soon to be started by Noel.

Not feeling too well from Jaipur and it being late, we opted out of dinner and and quickly dropped off to sleep at the visitors’ dorm.

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The next morning we rose and headed to breakfast where we met another volunteer, Marcel, who was working as an intern for a college semester.

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Hailing from a small town in New Mexico, this young man was teaching English to the youth attending the Vikas Bhavan High School (although called high school it actually begins at first grade and ends at tenth).

We visited his class one day and discovered just how difficult it is to teach a language to a classroom of energetic kids without knowing theirs.

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Our friend Carol W. will soon be doing the same in Nepal only she does have a teaching background and has taken an ESL course to prep for it.

My hat and Max’s sunglasses soon became photo props…

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We also witnessed the closeness. It was these times when we realized that these young children left everything familiar to them to attend this school.

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With an average of 250 students, the majority of these young kids (at the tender age of five) begin as boarders from the tribal District of Wayanad, 600 km north, and graduate at age 15 (grade 10) where they then can join mainstream schools. Headmistress Sethu Viswanathan, the founder’s wife, leads a staff of 20 teachers and 5 craft instructors. We enjoyed her company at meals served in her home by one of her three daughters who was an artist and had taught batik (something I’d love to learn).

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Since our volunteerism didn’t include any structured activities, Max and I were there to interview the leaders and participants for the purpose of obtaining as much knowledge as possible about this respected NGO. Our meeting with Reghu and Sabith would be later in the morning so we proceeded to wander around and poke our heads into various activities, including a stop at the Creche and nursery school. Here we were quickly and lovingly surrounded by an inquisitive and bright-eyed flock of tots. And, I so wished I had my polar bear puppet from the Y!

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As the founder’s philosophy stated, these children are embraced by a community that teaches them the power of being self-sufficient and contributing to others’ well-being. This included such mundane tasks as doing one’s laundry (starting at age ten), and we saw many clothes line hung around the boys’ and girls’ hostels as proof.

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They definitely enjoyed being part of the action.

When there in February our three-hour tour enabled us to meet briefly with the co-director Reghu, head of the People’s College, a school teaching practical skills, leadership development and personal empowerment to those individuals 18 years of age and older. We had been impressed by his dedication (and the work load) then, and, after discussing more with him and his associate, Sabith, we were in awe of not only the scope of their work but also their accomplishments.

Prior to visiting Mitraniketan I had mistakenly thought of this organization as a school for disadvantaged tribal kids. After being there I realized the multi-faceted programs this NGO offered and quickly expanded my perception. When asked what exactly is Mitraniketan, Reghu aptly described it as a rural community development center. Founded in 1956 by Vellanad native, Sri K. Viswanathan (1928-2014), this secular, non-profit organization thrives on a 60-acre campus comprised of over 400 members including teachers, students, farmers, and volunteers.

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Viswanathan and now his successors follow principles and practices drawn from Mahatma Gandhi (humanity is the real educator), Rabindranath Tagore (the Upanishad philosophy of abolishing ignorance through a teacher sharing knowledge with a group of students, some say similar to Plato’s line of thinking but, please, you can read more to get a much better understanding than what I’ve tried to describe here), Gurukula System of Education (development of mind, body, and soul to create a healthy and mindful individual with community spirit), and the Danish Folk High School (a public school alternative to university elites, based on informal, open dialogue between teachers and students).

From these guiding lights Viswanathan stated “Progress of society through the total development of individuals is the avowed mission of Mitraniketan. This ‘Abode of Friends’ has evolved over the years with rural development at its core.” And, the best part is his experiment is working.

Having studied in the U.S., the U.K., Scandinavia and India, Viswanathan was influenced by Arthur Morgan (1878-1975), a social philosopher, civil engineer, educator, and public servant, who believed in a holistic approach to education–study, work, and community involvement. Mitraniketan (“abode of friends”) took root in Viswanathan’s home village on family land, and the campus evolved into not only a boarding high school and a community college but also an agricultural science center (Krishi Vigyan Kendra), where we met a class learning better ways to irrigate,

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a rural technology center (RtC),

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a women’s empowerment center, and a production training center.

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During our stay we visited all of the areas with the exception of the women’s empowerment center, which occurs at select times during the year.

As I had mentioned earlier, the scope of Mitraniketan’s programs is a surprise, especially since both Max and I thought of it as a singular school. The campus spreads over a verdant and serene landscape, one populated with open-air classrooms and red brick buildings springing out of lush vegetation and rich earth.

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And, everywhere we walked we were greeted politely with smiles and, from the kids learning English, ‘how are you? what is your name?’. We felt like honored guests, ones who had wandered into another world where children grew into thoughtful adults.

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During our discussion with Reghu and Sabith we heard about some of the specific programs geared towards building self-sufficiency and empowerment. One was a women’s group where a savings fund created a micro-lending program and some of the agricultural research performed at the farming center taught better irrigation methods.

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Our conversations with these two along with the brochure created by Sabith served as excellent background for both Max’s and my projects.

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After a formal tour with a young woman who had showed us around in February, Max and I walked back to the Rural Technology Center. Here we were enthusiastically hosted by entrepreneurs who had fashioned several machines, such as one for digging the deep holes required for banana planting and another for more easily husking a coconut.

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Pottery, rubber-making,

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and jute weaving were other industries taught at these buildings along with water conservation.

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I don’t know which impressed us more–the products or the creators. It was a fitting end to our wanderings.

After two days we decided to find a hotel in Trivandrum where we could use the Internet and a computer to start our plans. We landed at the Hyacinth where we were hosted by the nicest hotel staff we’ve ever encountered. At one point, after receiving complimentary cookies and fruit in our room, we thought they must think we’re writing a travel article (I was often at the business center working on a draft plan).

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I’ve never stayed at a hotel where everyone, from the doormen to the cleaners to the waiters to the front desk, seemed genuinely welcoming.

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Once again we felt spoiled causing Max to revert to a familiar pose as we wandered around the hotel’s premises.

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Our time in Trivandrum coincided with one of the most famous festivals in Kerala, the Attukal Pongala. To quote a Trivandrum (or Thiruvananthapuram website)

“Attukal Pongala is celebrated late February/early March, every year, at Attukal Bhagavati Temple. It is a ten-day festival. On the 9th day, thousands of women devotees from many parts of the state gather in the vicinities of the temple to prepare pongala, a favourite offering to the goddess. Pongala (literally means to boil over) is a ritualistic offering of a sweet dish consisting of rice porridge, sweet brown molasses, coconut gratings, nuts and raisins. The uniqueness of the festival is that only women are allowed to do the offerings on that day.

Devotees offer pongala to appease the presiding deity of the temple – the Goddess – popularly known as Attukalamma. Right from the night before the Pongala day, thousands of women, regardless of religious faith, assemble at the temple premises and on either side of the roads leading to the shrine, to make the Pongala offering. Devotees from across the country and even from abroad participate in the ritual.”

We had arrived the day before the ninth day, so the next morning we strolled out the hotel to walk amidst the preparations and then the cooking for this goddess. We didn’t see any other foreigners and were, once again, thrilled to be embraced and welcomed by everyone celebrating this time-honored tradition.

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The women of Kerala have set a Guinness Book of World Records as the single largest gathering of women for a religious activity; and, the smoke burning our eyes was proof it was an extremely large celebration.

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Another day we visited the royal palace of the local rulers and the nearby landmark, the Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

IMG_6796 IMG_6810 IMG_6807 As non-hindus we couldn’t enter the temple but we had heard the story of a royal treasury found in 2011 worth $22 billion (yes, billion) dollars of gold jewelry, utensils, weapons and coins. We heard more about this mysterious treasure when we met a journalist, Renu Malhorta, editor-in-chief of the Afro Asian Business Chronicle, staying at our hotel. To say she was a live wire is understating her exuberance. Growing up in northern India and raising two children and leaving an abusive husband, Renu was irreverent, full of stories, and a walking, talking example of creating one’s own world in a male-dominated one. Her tales of putting the kibosh on male interviewees’ sexual advances were brazen and hilarious, and she definitely provided an insight into the workings of doing business in a testosterone-centric culture. She said she’d send us her article once it’s published, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

The Kuthiramalika Palace Museum or Puthenmalika Palace Museum is a lovely two-storeyed palace next to the above temple. Built by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Balarama Varma, the King of Travancore, it features beautiful wood carvings as well as priceless artifacts collected by the family. No photographs were allowed inside but Max was able to shoot the famous horse-head carvings, giving the residence the nickname “the horse palace”.

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Unfortunately, the building isn’t being maintained very well by the owners, the royal family; and, the tour guide made sure to point this out to her group of ten visitors, us included. We had also heard that there was a court battle occurring between the royals and the government over who owned the treasure found in the Temple.

It was still a bit ironic to see this sign,

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and then see this:

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Saturday we re-visited Kovalum Beach, which had resembled Maine’s honky-tonk beach in Old Orchard the night our group went with Noel. What a surprise, then, to find it relatively uncrowded and tranquil. Populated by a few swimmers and surfers, most, if not all, being sun-worshiping foreigners, we took turns frolicking in the surf and resting on the sand. The bus ride to and from was also easy and only 60 cents each for the A/C version and half that for the non-A/C bus.

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Enjoying authentic Indian food was a bonus during our travels. Or course there was the odd mistake where I offered what I thought was a green bean to Max…

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only to discover it was really a green chili.

Sunday was our day for visiting the most southern tip of India, Indira Point, named to commemorate Indira Ghandi (1917-84). Located in the city of Kanyakumari in the state of Tamil Nadu, this peninsula is the meeting point of three great water bodies: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

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A short and wavy ferry ride takes you to a pilgrimage site, Vivekananda Rock Memorial built in 1970 in honor of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) who swam, meditated and became enlightened on this rocky outcrop. He raised awareness of Hinduism as a world religion and Indian nationalism. He also helped introduce the pretzel-bending discipline of yoga to the western hemisphere.

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His philosophy based on the philosophical part of the Veda, the ancient Indian scriptures, is quoted below:

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free.

This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”

Standing on another rock is Thiruvalluvar Statue, 133-foot stone monument of the Tamil poet, Tiuvalluvar, begun in 1979 but only recently completed in 2000. This poet born before 1 B.C. E. wrote down-to-earth couplets, 1330 of them, espousing virtue, wealth and love. He was practical and felt learning was useless unless passed onto others, that farmers were important to society, poverty was destructive and that virtue without some sort of wealth was difficult to sustain.

It was quite an experience to once again be the sole whiteys amidst the orange-bedecked Indians as we rode out to the Temple.

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What was also interesting to note were the bunny trash cans. They looked good but I’m not sure how effective they were.

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Our two-plus-hour ride back gave us another opportunity to glimpse the busy life of India, spotting the over-crowded buses, baby on scooters, agriculture and tree hauling, and even a car carrying a coffin.

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We also spotted quite a few churches, and I knew we’d been in India for a bit when Max pointed out what he called a ‘Christian Temple’.

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Back at the Hyacinth we fine-tuned our plan drafts for our meeting with Reghu and Sabith the next day, our last full day in Kerala.

Riding the local bus to Vellanad we passed the ubiquitous billboards advertising wedding jewelry, which explained the large number of gold and silver shops lining Trivandrum’s city street. Believe it or not, I didn’t purchase any of the precious metals.

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Monday’s discussion at Mitraniketan was another wonderful day of learning even more about this successful NGO. We also heard about an upcoming visit of Saudi princesses who were interested in this organization’s community development programs. What they intended to do with this knowledge is unknown but it’s no surprise Reghu is sought out for speaking about this NGO’s success.

We walked back to the bus stop hoping that we’d be returning in the future to Mitraniketan for it’s a place that gets into one’s heart before you know it. Yet another reason to return to this beautiful and intriguing land.

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Magical Mystery Tour: PART VI

Jaipur

Friday, February 27 – Monday, March 2

We left the next morning to catch the train to Jaipur. Chhotaram escorted us to our seats where we found a cleaner ride than the one we all took to Agra. The trip was an easy six-hour ride. Bedding was provided, and I napped thanks to the wheels’  rhythmic clacking on the track. I also practiced my tactic of immediately using the toilet removing the future dread of having to use the head.

Jaipur is called the pink city, a color associated with hospitality. It began back in 1876 when the maharaja ordered all the buildings to be painted pink in order to welcome Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. To this day the law requires all residents to maintain that color. It does help that red sandstone was commonly used for construction.

This city, located due east of Jodhpur, is the capital of the state Rajasthan. Named after the boy king Jai Singh  II (1688-1744) Jaipur is known as Northern India’s first planned city. The king began building this new city in 1727 due to a growing population at the old capital Amber and the need for water. Jaipur soon became a magnet for those seeking knowledge about the world via science, art and religion. The king even constructed an observatory close to the City Palace, which one can still visit today.

Our hotel here was a mock-heritage hotel meaning it was built in the style of a former maharaja residence but wasn’t one; however, it certainly didn’t detract from the archtectural style, which reminded me a bit of a Dr. Seuss house with terraces and stairways criss-crossing every which way.

The entrance boasted its altar to a deity with bowls of floating petals.

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Our rooms was large and comfortable (with the exception of directly being under the breakfast dining room where a herd of elephants must have been dancing). The only disappointment was the staff, who were surly and not too happy to be waiting on visitors, both foreign and nationals alike. Thankfully the general manager at the front desk didn’t fall into that category for he was friendly and helpful.

That night we ventured out to the main street and dodged tuk-tuks, cars, and trucks to reach the opposite side. We found some refreshments for the room down one of the side roads only to then take a tuk-tuk to literally just cross the busy street (by now it was dark and there was no way I was going to risk stepping into the unorthodox streams of traffic).

Outside our room there were balconies, a private one where I hung laundry (and one day opened up to find a monkey staring back at me) and a public one where I noticed some construction going up in the distance.

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Curious about safety measures I zoomed in only to find these guys hammering away on the edges with no preventive lines while a women loaded bricks on her head and another one tended to two small children. A brief glimpse into some people’s lives made me feel overloaded with luck. That saying ‘there but the grace of god go I’ never seemed more appropriate.

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Our first full day Max woke up with Delhi Belly. We think it was the mutton we had shared the night before but it easily could have been some bug he picked up earlier. Whatever the cause, he needed to remain in bed whereas I decided to brave the streets alone to check out some handicrafts.

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All was fine. I took tuk-tuks to certain areas then walked to others. The only harassment was by three small street children who, if I hadn’t had a tight watch on, would have grabbed that off my arm and run. I felt awful telling them strongly ‘No!’ when they began hanging off me. This experience was one of the saddest and worst of my entire Indian trip mainly because I felt like such a rich tourista who didn’t know how to give these kids what they really needed, which was definitely more than a watch.

Max rallied the next day so off we went with a hired driver/guide to see some of the area’s famous sites such as Amber Fort located roughly six miles on a hillside outside Jaipur. On the way we stopped at Palace of the Winds or Hawa Mahal. This five-story building was built in 1799 by the maharaja for ladies of the royal household to people watch without being seen. We didn’t go in but snapped the obligatory shot while craning our necks upward.

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Back in the car we headed for the main attraction, Amber Fort. Built in the late 1500s by Raja Man Singh I and expanded by subsequent maharajas until the move to the new capital, Jaipur, this fort was the palatial home for the royal family.

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It was pouring when we arrived but armed with a purchased umbrella and rented audioguides we proceeded to explore the four sections each with its associated courtyard. Later the rain stopped and we were able to wander around without getting soaked.

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A close-up of the above stairway entrance shows some of the marvelous detail found in this palatial fort.

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And, the view overlooking the Maota Lake was also stunning in spite of the overcast sky. Note the gardens atop the structure on the right.

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The complex was impressive, especially the Hall of Victory with its inlaid panels and glass-covered paint and colored foil that sparkle even today. Imagine what this must have looked like when new and in candlelight. The pink hues, the delicate designs… I kept aiming and shooting and couldn’t stop.

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In  the courtyard of the Maharaja’s apartments a channel of water would cool off rooms while flowing eventually into the gardens for irrigation.

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We wound our way up and down stairways, some with impressive risers and found ourselves in the back hallway of the zenana or women’s quarters.

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In one of these courtyards we also found some translated plaques commemorating the fort.

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On the backside of this compound we peered into the hillside and immediately felt an airiness not experienced in other sites. We finally realized this was due to the lack of people. Only some monkeys occupied the view.

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Peering down into one of the courtyards facing the hill there was a colorful array of women in saris while a little bird kept watch.

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We left the way we came in after admiring more monkeys keeping guard at the Moon Gate.

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On our way back to Jaipur we stopped at a former duck-hunting, water palace, Jai Mahal. Constructed in 1799 by Madho Singh as a royal summer resort, this waterlogged structure sits in Man Sagar Lake created by damming the Darbhawati River in the 16th century.

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 Heading back into town we passed tarp homes along the busy city roads. Another reminder of the world’s have-nots living amidst the haves.

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The rain that had stopped sprung up again, so we pulled out the umbrella and puddle-jumped our way to the entrance of the City Palace. Everyone said it was unusual for this time of year, that it was too early. It made for some interesting walkways.

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At the City Palace we visited the impressive reception hall. Surrounding the large audience area there are large portraits of former maharajas including the polo-playing Man Singh II who was the last maharaja prior to the state becoming part of India. From there we wandered into the armoury and a museum sporting royal costumes from earlier years.

It was also in the complex that we saw the huge silver urns made for the devout ruler Madho Singh II so he could bathe in the holy Ganges water when attending King Edward VII’s 1902 coronation. There were two, and each one was over five feet high.

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And, it’s also where my husband, who doesn’t believe in psychics, deigned to have his fortune told only to have the guy say almost the exact same words to me.

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We ended our day back at our hotel and got ready to leave early the next morning. We were returning to volunteer at Mitraniketan, the NGO we’d visited with Noel and Diana earlier in our trip.

The next day it was my turn for not feeling well but luckily it didn’t include keeping vigil at a toilet. It did help when our stopover of five hours was in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India. The airport was new, modern, clean, and comfortable with lounge sofas where I slept for a lot of the layover. And, after three hours I had recovered enough to check out the shops… :)

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Next stop, Mitraniketan!

Magical Mystery Tour: PART V

RAJASTHAN:  Salawas

Tuesday, February 24 – Friday, February 27

We got in the cab for Delhi airport having no idea what to expect when we exited the other end in Jodhpur, a city located in the western part of the Rajasthan state. When Noel asked what we wanted to do after the group tour, we didn’t know what to say except we’d like to get to know the people. He mentioned a homestay the first week and a place to volunteer the second. We signed on for both.

Now, the day had come for heading to the homestay in some village where your room was a mud hut (thankfully, with western toilets) and where optional forays included camel hikes. Hmmm. Maybe I agreed too quickly?

At the airport we parked ourselves next to the gate and proceeded to read up on whatever we could on Chhotaram Prajapat’s Homestay. While waiting we heard someone call our names only to look up and see Noel! He was here for his flight. We were so excited to see him you would have thought it had been years since we last were with him.

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Our flight was easy, and we landed in Jodhpur’s airport, which was modest compared to the large, international ones we’ve flown through and to. We picked up our bags and toted them outside only to be greeted by a sign ‘Max & Lynnie’. It was Chhotaram, our host, who loaded us into his jeep and off we went for a bouncy, dusty ride to his village and home.

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There we were introduced to some of his family, including his wife Mamata, brother Shambhu, Shambhu’s wife Dariya, and the children:  Chhotaram and Mamata’s daughter and two sons; Shambhu and Dariya’s baby boy. Others in and out were the two youngest brothers of Chhotaram and some other young cousins. The patriarch and matriarch of the family weren’t due home until late the next day after attending a funeral in another village.

That first afternoon we settled into our room while trying to figure out what to do next. There was really no routine or expectations of us other than to experience their lifestyle. The feeling was a bit uncomfortable for we didn’t want to intrude, yet their living space was literally an outdoor patio and courtyard with a small kitchen with an open fire pit, a washing-up place next to the kitchen for dishes, a covered veranda off of which were two rooms, one where they kept their inventory of dhurry rugs, and the other serving as an office, sleeping area, nursery and closet.

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On the opposite side of the courtyard stood another open-air room where the dhurries were woven.

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There was another building across the way where most of the family retired for sleeping.

Access to our mud hut was either via the driveway or through the office and past the buffalo and cow pens, jeeps, and laundry line.

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On the backside of our hut was the fire wood and where Mamata made cow dung patties for burning (I saw her doing it but ungraciously didn’t offer to help).

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Coming back to the patio, Chhotaram offered us lunch, which was a simple meal of healthy chips and buffalo curd. We soon learned almost every meal involved buffalo curd, either plain or curried. In addition to freshly made and baked millet bread or wholewheat chapatis, we had a cooked veggie, potatoes or rice, and an optional chili sauce that was excellent (they kindly left it as an add-on in deference to foreigners’ concern over too-spicy of a dish). The first day required a bit of getting use to, but by the time we left three days later we were truly enjoying this fresh food. It was the healthiest, purest nutrition I think I’ve ever eaten. Just writing this makes me wish I was sharing one of those meals.

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We also quickly learned Chhotaram is an extremely healthy eater. He only drank water or milk, never ate meat, never ate processed food (the mother and wives cooked using all fresh ingredients), and only used water to brush his teeth. Going by the look of him and his teeth, his diet was something we all should be doing.

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Chhotaram and his family are weavers, and he runs a 40-family cooperative ensuring that those making these lovely rugs are reimbursed fairly for their work. He demonstrated the art of dhurry weaving, which is long and involved and something I couldn’t do, especially since I couldn’t sit like that for longer than 15 minutes.

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Chhotaram is also an excellent salesman as we ended up buying several of these rugs, and we live on a boat… However, we know we’ll find a place in our Orr’s home for them.

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Early evening the third youngest brother took us for a walk around the neighborhood. Chhotaram asked us to converse with his brother in English (not that we could have spoken in his language) as he wanted his brother to practice. This discipline of learning English obviously paid off as most of the adults spoke it.

Along the way we saw a woman herding her goats home, a runaway camel, peacocks (where I couldn’t help but think of my artist friend Ellen and Max’s Aunt Phyll), the water truck (we saw it deliver a tank load to Chhotaram’s cistern), and lots of boisterous kids beckoning us for photos.

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What’s lovely to see is the natural affection among guys as opposed to only among girls.

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Back at the homestead I saw Mamata creating her delicious meals. Look at her spice rack in the second photo. She used it to make an excellent, fiery chili sauce.

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I tried my hand at tforming a flat, circular millet patty but failed miserably. Mamata just smiled, took the sad, misshapen lump and expertly turned it into a perfect circle.

Night fell quickly and soon we were off to bed. The next morning would be our village safari, which is comprised of visiting different families and businesses living in and around Salawas.

We left around 9:00 in Chhotaram’s trusty jeep and made our way to a home owned by a Bishnoi family. The Bishnois (translates to ’29’) follow the 29 principles teachings of Lord Jhambheshwar, a Hindu who believed in a casteless society, not killing or eating any animal, no cutting down trees (he reached his enlightenment after sitting under one in the 15th century), and no drinking of alcohol.

In addition to the belief in conservation the Bishnois also believe in welcoming strangers with an offer of opium. How this got started I don’t know, but Max enjoyed a simulated puff.

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From there we stopped at a small lake where we saw some of the local animals and a huge flock of migrating geese followed by a visit to a shepherdess’ home.

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Another cooperative, this one composed of men and women who created lovely scarves and used old saris to quilt wall hangings and bed spreads.

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We have learned that you can’t enter a store without having everything pulled out for display. And, yes, it works. We ended up getting some.

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One of our final stops was at the local potters. To turn his wheel the potter used a stick to quickly build up centrifugal force, then began shaping his pot. I tried but was definitely not successful. This attempt only made me realize even more how talented our friend Rebecca Esty is.

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What is amazing to me is these people’s livelihoods are passed down from one generation to the next. The shepherdess, the potter, the weavers, all worked in the same field as their parents, and their parents’ parents, in many instances going back hundreds of years. Chhotaram continues to weave like his father, and, no doubt, his children will, too. This pre-destined occupational path felt odd to someone who grew up with little expectation of following in my parent’s footsteps. Here, it worked.

We landed back at Chhotaram’s and retired to our hut. Soon we heard our host saying he had a surprise for us and to join him at the house. Up we went only to turn the corner and find Layne there! Talk about a wonderful shock! She and a friend of hers living in India were staying just outside of Jodphur and had also gone on a village safari. What was ironic is we passed them in our jeep, and Max mentioned ‘I just saw someone who looked a lot like Layne.’  She did the same only she asked the driver, who happened to be Chhotaram’s brother, if some people named Max and Lynnie were staying at his house. As a friend Steve Keener says, the world is a small, small ball.

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Later that day five new guests arrived, a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses travelling around India. They were all young, all friendly, and not preachy, which was a good thing. Our last event of the day was walking fifteen minutes to perch atop an outcropping of boulders as the sun set.

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Our second full day was spent relaxing and catching up on emails and news, then strolling with Chhotaram around his own village. It also gave me plenty of opportunity to take some photos of his beautiful family.

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Talk about a family who could model joy. I couldn’t stop snapping photos.

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My hat provided some photo ops, and it looked much better on Chhotaram and his younger brother than it did on me.

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A french family (grandparents with their granddaughter) arrived in time for dinner, and Max took the opportunity to demonstrate, then teach, his one card trick. We enjoyed the brief time we were with them and would have liked to have visited more, as well as heard how they were adjusting to Indian fare compared to France’s. I did give the little girl some power bars as I had noticed she wasn’t eating much.

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Our home stay was definitely an eye-opener. Chhotaram is an impressive entrepreneur, one who is dedicated to preserving the heritage of local livelihoods while adapting to modern ways.

Although some customs (e.g., women have to cover their faces to show respect to their mother-in-law, and arranged marriages – Chhotaram was married at age 19, his wife, age15) were so startling different from a westerner’s viewpoint, the underlying sense of family was strong.

And, no matter the differences smiles and laughter bridge all cultures.

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Magical Mystery Tour: PART IV

DELHI

Saturday, February 21, – Tuesday, February 24

Back in a big city we adjusted to the pollution and noise, especially as we got to take tuk-tuks for the day. By now we had all become a bit de-sensitized to the lack of traffic rules, so buzzing around in our tuk-tuks was a BLAST. Especially since Layne had begun the game of thigh-grabbing fellow tuk-tukers (not the drivers, just the other passengers). She totally surprised Max, which meant she is the high priestess of thigh-grab.

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The reason for this began when Max related how a male Berber in Morocco placed his hand on Max’s thigh when I took a photograph. Max, being a bit uncomfortable, was okay but just not used to another man being quite so intimate. Western cultures are so not-thigh-grabbing. Anyhow, whenever he took a picture, instead of saying ‘cheese’, he’d grab the inside of his thigh. Which all leads up to our tuk-tuk game.

You played by stealthily approaching a fellow tuk-tuk from one side or the other, then quickly darting your hand out to grab a piece of flesh… thigh, arm, hand… it didn’t matter where just so long as contact was made.

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The three drivers (we had split up into groups of two, two, and three) must have thought we were nuts; yet, you could tell they were getting into the game because it was due to their careful  maneuvering that enabled us to swipe at our fellow tuk-tukers.

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I must admit I let out a loud yelp when I got grabbed. Did I say it was a blast?!

So, we made our way to our first Delhi site, the Bahai House of Worship or Lotus Temple. This religion is relatively new and, thus, has the advantage of understanding the value of accepting any and all beliefs. It’s the epitome of tolerance, believing in the oneness of God and the spiritual unity of all mankind. This was immediately apparent just waiting in line to enter for Noel pointed out that it was one of the few sites where both locals and foreigners shared the same queue.

At the entrance we saw an unusual site, which was free vaccinations offered by, of all organizations, the Rotary with visiting members from Europe.

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After speaking briefly with them, we entered the grounds and were swept up in a calmly moving sea of Indians enjoying a Sunday outing.

The grounds were a green oasis, which we saw was due to an environmental approach to gardening.

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This temple is one of seven houses of worship located around the world, each with its own distinctive design. This one is inspired by the lotus, a symbol of purity associated with worship and religion in India. Nine large pools of water surrounding the enclosure not only enhance the tranquility of the site but also cools the building.

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The air of spiritualism with which all visitors appeared to cloak themselves was disturbed by an incident involving one of our group. Some guys used the opportunity to briefly isolate Leslie from our cluster as we were snaking our way to the temple doors. Fortunately a man saw her being cut off and quickly herded her back to our group but not before the young guys had snitched her scarf. A few minutes later and she could have lost her wallet. In spite of being a bit shaken by the experience Leslie put it all in perspective. This episode also made me realize how protective my fellow travelers were towards each other as we formed a circle around her and kept our eyes out for other dipping hands.

We had the usual photo-sharing, but I missed one I really wanted to take, which was of a group of young students from the north. They gathered around us like chicks in their bright yellow tees, but, unfortunately, we used one of their cameras to take it. No matter how often we were stopped to ask to be in photos, we never tired of it. It felt like an honor. I mean there aren’t too many places in the world these days that people from the States feels so welcomed.

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The rest of our Sunday in Delhi was spent tuk-tuking around this huge city including stopping in at a huge, western mall to see part of a Bollywood film (alas, not much singing and dancing but still fun to try to grasp the meaning as it was all in Hindi) and sample some fare at the new food court. We easily could have been back in the states, although not sure we’d have found yoga food like this.

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Back in the tuk-tuks we explored one of Noel’s favorite monuments in all of New Delhi, the Qutb Minar. This site represents the first Islamic rule in India with a 238-foot tower.

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The first three stories are out of sandstone while the 4th and 5th include marble as well as sandstone. The first story of the tower was begun by the Muslim sultan Qutb-ud-din in 1193 to celebrate his victory over the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. Later his successors added to it, resulting in the current, five-storey structure.

This complex reminded me of the Roman Forum because it obviously was the heart of Delhi during the Middle Ages. The tower is just one of many structures located here. There is India’s first mosque, The Might of Islam Mosque, built the same year as the tower. And, an iron pillar, which had been standing here possibly as early as the late 4th century C.E. with a sanskrit inscription (scientists are still mystified by how this iron pillar could have been cast using ancient technology)…

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Tombs and summer palaces also grace this complex.

There was a ton of history here, a lot of which zoomed right through my head, but the patterns carved into many of the stones’ surfaces are what fascinated me. And, trust me, there were a lot of them.

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I loved this guy who just happened to be resting his arm on some ancient sculpture,

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and, who can resist kids and animals? :)

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From there we ventured to the India Gate, a 160-foot arch commemorating those Indian soldiers who died during WWI, the Northwest Frontier operations, and the 1919 Anglo-Afghan war.

Being a balmy Sunday evening, the grounds surrounding the Gate attracted locals like moths to a light, and we entered into this throng as twilight turned to night. Amazing that this was just a regular night out for folk. And, once again, we were part of the attraction.

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Just as Qutb Minar brought to mind the Roman Forum, here I felt I could have been at the Mall in Washington D.C. If you left India Gate and rode down the broad avenue of Rajpath (Kings Way) you’d reach an array of large government buildings, including the official residence of India’s president. The buildings were constructed between 1914 and 1931 when Britain moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, thus creating ‘New’ Delhi. It was dark by the time we arrived in our tuk-tuks, so we just briefly peered at the imposing buildings then left.

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Sunday Dinner was a celebration at Veda, one of Noel’s favorite restaurants, and just around the corner from our hotel. It was a spectacular event with one of my newly discovered, favorite foods–fried spinach with cheese sprinkled on top (Carolie, at least the fried item is a veggie and not an oreo like you saw once).

After feasting on those along with other appetizers I hardly had any room for the coming entrees. One of which was, what else, mutton. I must admit it was the one time I felt I had over-indulged. Of course the G&T contributed to the full feeling :)

Our last full day together we once again stepped out into the smog. I can’t say I got use to it, this almost viscous air. You felt you could almost chew it.

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For our jaunts around Delhi we now switched tuk-tuks for rickshaw bicycles. The difference here was you were much more on display, and, boy, as a woman you felt it. However, I had heard wearing sunglasses helps, and they did serve well as a shield :)

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The other concern was the poor peddlers. I felt I should have gotten out and pushed. Thank god there weren’t any hills we had to ascend. Then I really would have had to get out and push.

We got an up close view of the these streets as we wove our way through the humanity. Spices ready to be shipped, modern appliances for sale, food stalls sending out tantalizing aromas, you name it, you could get it here.

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We spotted a film crew and wanted to ask what they were shooting but we were carried away by this tide of humanity.

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The reason we were heading to Old Delhi was today was Temple Day, our first being the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid or “Friday Mosque”. The same dude who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal built this between 1644 and 1658. Reputedly it can hold 25,000 people. Put it another way, almost 1/8 of Maine’s population could gather here for a lobster bake.

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The patterns on the floor stipulate where to place one’s prayer rug, and we carefully stood aside in our bare feet as men came to pray.

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The mosque sits in a large courtyard overlooking Delhi. Clogged streets, outdoor markets,

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(zoomed view)

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impromptu playing field,

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home abodes…

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all of these you can see if as you check out each side. Here, we did see a lot of other foreigners. No surprise considering it’s one of the top attractions in Delhi.

We made our way through an outdoor market to find lunch, spotting a barber where Max was thinking of getting his hair cut but we didn’t have time.

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Lunch was at the Delhi-famous Karim’s. Serving food since 1913, this rabbit (or should I say goat) warren of a restaurant is known for its Mughlai cuisine, and, yes, mutton was part of our meal. We felt a little conspicuous when we pulled out our alcohol wipes for sterilizing silverware. Although, sitting next to the dishwashing, if you want to call it that, made me realize how futile this precaution was. This feeling of futility was compounded by seeing the glasses we’d be drinking out of. But, hey, the food was good! Must have been due to the accumulation of years of seasoning using the same items over and over and over.

Post lunch was our Sikh Temple time at Gurudwara Sis Ganji located at Chandni Chowk, a major avenue of Old Delhi. Here, too, we went shoeless while draping heads with scarves and, for the guys, cute bandanas.

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Once we had completed our appropriate attire we stumbled back out to the street, pushed with the crowd, to climb steps at the temple’s entrance.

While prepping a man kindly passed out leaflets in English, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Telugu (the latter I now knew was the language for Hyderabad’s state) explaining how Sikhism was founded over 540 years ago by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. He opposed superstitions, rituals and hypocrisy and was deeply revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. Skins also earned a fearsome reputation for being courageous warriors, which they say was necessary to protect India and the women folk from all the invaders.

This particular temple commemorates Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji who sacrificed himself in protest of Aurangzeb’s (Shah Jahal’s son) forcible conversions of Hindus to Islam. It’s a fairly involved tale and pretty gruesome considering the tortures some of the other Gurus experienced, but, basically, he refused to convert and was executed on November 11, 1675. His martyrdom caused masses to rise up and, thus, eventually (key word there) led to the fall of the Mughal Empire in 1783.

Inside we tried not to gawk at the brilliance of decorations. Compared to the mosque’s subdued colorations this was Mardi Gras. In spite of the seemingly large number of worshipers in the drop-off-pick-up-shoes-bandana-head room down the street this was relatively empty.

We grabbed a spot at the way back, trying to bend our limbs into modest positions without facing our feet out. A guy was playing music up front as devotees came and went.

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After fifteen minutes we stumbled up on our numbed legs and followed Noel to the front of the temple where we queued up to see the tomb made of 100% gold. Like the Roman Catholic cathedrals, all I could think was how many people this could help if melted down. That, and what fabulous pairs of earrings you could get out of it.

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Back outside we reversed the process of shoe and headgear then followed Noel to the street where he pointed to a Hindu Temple we could visit. But, he said we’d have to take our shoes off and actually walk through some nasty stuff on the street to get there. That cinched it. We all politely declined and headed for shopping or the Red Fort (seen in the background below).

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Well, the Red Fort wasn’t open on Mondays so off we returned to the hotel, R&R for the men and retail therapy for the women.

Dinner was subdued as the first of the group made preparations for catching a 2:00 a.m. flight back to Maine. Morning would complete our leave-takings, with Layne heading to Jodphur to meet a friend, Diana to Mitraniketan to volunteer, Max and me to a homestay outside of Jodhpur, and Noel to Nepal and Bhutan to vet sites for his Fall travelers.

Thankfully we knew we’d be seeing one another in a few weeks back in Portland, which made good-byes not so sad. And, you know me, I positively detest good-byes.

For Max and me it was a bit daunting to think of navigating India on our own. However, we found Noel had prepared us well for exploring the mysteries of this exotic country.

As we waved good-bye we knew there could be bumps and a few bruises on our solo travels but nothing unmanageable and all an adventure.

With a deep breath we began our solo voyage into the inner sanctum of the Indian continent…

Magical Mystery Tour: PART III

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Thursday morning February 19 – Saturday night February 21

We flew to Delhi and stayed close to the train station for the night to then rise early and catch a train to Agra the next morning. This was our first train ride, and I had prepared by letting extremely little fluid cross my lips. Train restrooms are bad enough in the USA. I could only imagine the experience on an Indian train.

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We were in one of the better coaches, yet, even that made me realize just how spoiled I was traveling on the UK trains. In spite of wanting to wipe everything down with our 1/4”-square alcohol wipes it was quite fun. Noel invited each of us up to an open door so we could lean out and snap photos as we zoomed by a quilt of countryside:  irrigated fields gave way to garbage-decorated towns only to revert back to green acres of farmlands worked by small landowners… all cloaked in heavy smog, which was a forerunner to our air in Delhi.

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IMG_5110IMG_5251it was also along the ride we saw the traditional method of preserving cow dung for fuel as we passed patties arranged for drying.

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Of course, in spite of my few-drops-of-liquid policy I had to use the facilities, and a tactic was born. From now on I would attempt to be the first to use any public toilet. This practice had two advantages:  by facing one of my worst fears early on (just how bad would it be if desperately needing to use a toilet on a moving vehicle), I eliminated any hesitation for when I really needed to use the facilities; and, by attempting to be one of the first I wasn’t faced with as much grime and previous-usage by others. This tactic stood me in good stead as the trip advanced.

During the three-plus hour ride we entertained ourselves with breaking out in “Do, Re, Me” song and Daniel’s tribute to Limca, a new favorite drink.  Purchased from one of the train’s Meals On Wheels guys.

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Can you tell we were a group who weren’t afraid to be ourselves?

Arriving in Agra we took pics of those interested in being photographed

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as Noel pointed out the interesting signage that indicated who can use which lounge.

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Exiting the station a group of us posed for our own photo before heading to our hotel for our stay.

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We spent the late afternoon exploring a local bazaar.

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We were entertained by some young dancers until Noel said they most likely had been sexually abused. He also had mentioned earlier India still had eunuchs.

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As we were strolling along in the market I heard a familiar sound but couldn’t quite place it. Puzzled I turned toward the buzzing noise only to realize we were going to be fumigated again. We all quickly took it in stride  creating our own face masks.

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That night we attended two weddings, one by just being there and the other due to Noel’s Charm Offensive obtaining an invitation.

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This required us to dress in our Indian finest and then ham it up.

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It also provided me with one of my favorite photographs of my husband who was looking mighty fine in his Indian attire.

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The next morning we had another delicious meal at our hotel with some of the nicest wait staff. One guy had the best smile, Max posed with him so I could get a photo. Throughout our time in India we ran into smiles such as this.

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We walked down and stood in line to enter the Taj Mahal where security guards searched bags for any food. Resident monkeys kept close eyes on this, peering down as visitors’s pocketbooks were emptied of any contraband.

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While waiting with our group I noticed a monkey gleefully scampering away from colleagues on the iron scaffolding. Peering closely I saw it was grasping a colorful tube. When focusing the zoom on the creature I burst out laughing. He has absconded with Leslie’s smarties, which she had brought all the way from the US with plans to hand out to children. How the little fellow grabbed them I don’t know but her smarties were certainly a huge hit.

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The Taj Mahal has been coined the “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity” by one of India’s poets, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) , and it deserves that descriptor. This historical landmark, one of the seven wonders of the modern world, was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan. Remember my mentioning Abkar, a Mughal Emperor? Well, Jahan is his grandson. Like his grandfather, Jahan was known for his military prowess but his interest in architecture also earned him the title “Builder of Marvels”.

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Shah Jahan began construction of the Taj Mahal the year after his third wife and love of his life, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to their 14th son in 1631. Legend states she requested him to build her the most beautiful tomb the world; and, he did over the next eight years.

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The attention to detail was amazing. The architect had also created some mirages, such as creating a chevron pattern that made the vertical pillars appear hexagonal.

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Using materials from all over India (and over 1,000 elephants to carry it) 20,000 craftsmen constructed the Taj Mahal located on the banks of the Yamuna river. The colors are magnificent, surrounding the ethereal glow of the marble with pastels. Even the birds seem to follow this color scheme.

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Shah Jahal was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb in 1658 and died in 1666 as a prisoner in Agra Fort. Supposedly, his favorite daughter installed a mirror in his cell so he could gaze upon his beloved’s tomb. (Another link to our previous site visits:  Aurangzeb led a siege against the Golconda Fort in 1687 finally scaling the walls and forcing the surrender of Abul Hasan Qutb Shah and acquiring the hefty wealth of Hyderabad.)

Exiting to the other side we found a scene from early ages. The river stretched out in front of us lending an other-wordly air to an already awe-inspiring structure.

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Returning to the front I snapped a shot looking back at one of the gated entrances from which we entered. I thought of the photo of Princess Di being here without a crowd of people. It must have been both eerie and lovely.

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Of all the places we saw in India, this site is maintained the best with no trash strewn about, lovely flowers and grounds,

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and a structure whose sole purpose is to amaze and awe visitors. The grounds were able to absorb all of the busyness and sounds that come from passels of tourists (reputed to be more than twice the population of Agra), leaving a tranquility rarely encountered in our Indian adventure.

Once you sat down you and gazed upon one man’s memory of his beloved, it’s difficult to leave, a feeling we shared with many other visitors.

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This site really did lull one into a surreal peace.

Returning to our hotel in a cab, I couldn’t help but notice even the taxis pay homage to the Taj Mahal colors.

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While waiting for our transport, we experienced a typical communication situation. Noel decided to arrange a car ride versus taking the train, allowing us more travel flexibility. Noel had agreed to  hire a car that the manager said would be a new vehicle equipped with all the latest comforts. Well, after waiting for 30 minutes the ‘new’ one appeared. Evidently ‘new’ meant it had four wheels and some seats.  Another half hour passes and the driver reappears with the manager’s own car. It offered better comforts but, since it wasn’t licensed as a tourist vehicle, we ran the risk of being fined if caught on the highway. So, reject #2. Finally, the driver shows up with another mini-van. Even though it was similar to the first in terms of comfort, at least  it was legal. With that we stuffed ourselves in and merrily rode the highway back.

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I believe Noel has the knack of ensuring his peeps are all flexible for I found our group always made the most fun out of any experience. Our three-plus-hour ride back to Delhi was no exception. Delhi, here we come!

Magical Mystery Tour: PART II

KERALA

Monday, February 16th to Thursday, February 19th

The next morning we flew via Chenai down to Trivandrum in the southern state of Kerala. Thapovan, an Ayurvedic Clinic and Treatment Center, was our destination in this tropical region.

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I must admit I’ve tried yoga and its accompanying spiritual Ohm-ing. It hasn’t really captured me. I remember one class I attended many moons ago. When the guy said root yourself to the ground and be a tree, I couldn’t help wishing the ground was somewhere else and that the tree served doughnuts. So, no, I did not attend the morning yoga practices. However, if our friend Gail was teaching, I would!

It was both Max’s and my first glimpse of the Arabian Sea, so Max donned his Summer Salstice tee in honor of our friend John Arndt and strolled down to the beach.

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Noel had told us this state had a strong presence of communism, so we weren’t surprised to see the hammer and sickle signage on our way to this yogi-ish resort. We also learned this state had one of the highest literacy rates, thanks to the communist emphasis on education.

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What did surprise us was Noel giving us the okay to consume the fresh fruits and vegetables. But, it was because he trusted the preparation at this healthy spa. Up to now we weren’t allowed, which is no surprise because most travelers are forewarned not to eat fresh fruits or vegetables unless they’re thoroughly washed and then cooked.

Throughout our wanderings the abundance of the watermelon, pineapple, bananas, papapyas, and other tropical fruit left me drooling as we passed roadside stalls with the aroma of freshly squeezed juices. I’m convinced if there’s a fruit, an Indian will figure out how to make any and all food offerings out of it. Followed by crafting shoes, or some sort of useful item out of the remnants.

But here, permission was granted to indulge. And, each day I did just that. It was heaven. I don’t think I had a meal there without devouring one of the delicious fruit plates offered in this Sangria-la setting. But, you had to ensure your plate was close at hand for the crows would swoop into the open-air dining room to snatch any leftovers. Don’t blame them. If I lived in India I’d be poaching food here, too.

Because there are so, so very many sites to see and events to experience, we were only dipping our toes into India’s offerings. And, Kerala was no exception. Noel had to juggle schedules and logistics to ensure all of our senses were exposed to the real India. Which meant we couldn’t do everything we wanted, such as simply lay down on the verandas around here with a cup of good java and watch the palm fronds wave (the hammock pic reminds me of a painting Ellen, a good friend of ours, created… it’s hanging in the blue room on Orr’s Island :).

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In this peaceful setting roosters and chickens roamed the grounds. I loved seeing them cluck their way through the plants. Although, when the rooster starting crowing at all hours of early morning, I would have preferred to have seen him and his buddies on a plate.

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On Tuesday morning the group chose different activities. Since Max, Diana and I were volunteering at Mitraniketan, a rural community development NGO, after the scheduled group tour, we headed off with Noel. Our destination was approximately one hour away in a small village called Vellanad. There we’d meet one of its co-directors, Dr. Reghu, who ran the center’s People’s College. Leslie, Layne and Daniel would have a recuperating day with ayurvedic consultations, massages, and beach time. Believe me, it was tempting to join the latter group, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of a road trip.

Having visited the Mitraniketan’s website (www.mitraniketan.org) prior to our journey to India, I was suitably impressed not only by the center’s programs but also by the photos of the founder with the Dali Lama. Now that’s what I call a stamp of approval. We later discovered the Dali Lama asked to come back several years after his initial visit in the late 1990’s. I found that even more impressive.

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The campus was quiet due to a holiday (there are a lot of temple holidays in India, and, whether one believes or not, who doesn’t like a reprieve from a routine?), but the three of us met Reghu while being guided around the center by Sumam, a lovely young woman who was also pretty quiet. We were accompanied for part of the tour by a Danish couple who had met years ago when both were volunteering in India, one in the north, the other in the south. They were retracing each other’s time with the husband’s time at Mitraniketan being part one.

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After a shared lunch the four of us left for our return trip, spotting some of the local festivities along our route, such as the huge cauldron of boiling rice mixture stirred by one of the taxicab and rickshaw drivers outside their temple set-up. And, yep, another photo-op.

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Before we landed back at Thapovan we stopped at one of Mitraniketan’s properties located in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. Tanjavoor Amma Veddu was the home of Sugandha Valli, the Maharaja’s mistress. The story goes Swathi Thirunal, the Maharaja, fell in love with this Bharatanatyam dancer (try saying that fast) and began neglecting his responsibilities. Enough so his family ordered Sugandha Valli out of the city without her lover’s knowledge. He didn’t live long after that and no one knows what happened to the dancer. A sad story but a magnificent house and dance hall. The structures have fallen into disrepair, but, hopefully, some renovations will occur before too long for it’s a jewel.

We took a tour of both buildings, admiring the attention to detail. In spite of neglect the colors are still bright and remaining furniture is not too badly damaged.

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As we were touring we entered a small room on the second floor only to be startled by some beating wings flashing by. Noel began to say ‘don’t worry, it’s just a pigeon’ when he changed that to a screech ‘it’s an owl!’. And, it was a big one. Just as it scared the beejeesus out of us, we found we had done the same to it.

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Sugandha Valli was known for the famous Kerala dance, Kathakali (“Story-Play”), a theatrical combination of drama, dance, music and ritual; and, her dance hall was the perfect spot to act out some moves.

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Thanks to Noel’s strict dietary instructions (no fresh or raw fruit and vegetables, only bottled water, no ice, and disinfect utensils, bottles and cans with alcohol wipes) only a few had gotten some twinges of Delhi Belly. However, there were some odd manifestations occurring, one being Leslie, Diana, and Daniel’s swollen feet and ankles (quickly termed “Camelitis” versus “Elephantitis” due to the first two’s camel ride) and Layne’s and my poka dots.

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Fortunately, all gradually disappeared but not without each of us scrutinizing the offending appendage or skin area carefully on a daily basis.

Arising the next morning we gathered for a backwater cruise, an activity famous in Kerala thanks to the numerous canals flowing around this southern tip of India.

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For over an hour we glided past locals harvesting coconuts and bathing…

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 as well as the brightly hued kingfisher perched along the banks.

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We landed on a sand bar where Max tested the water for a swim,

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then adorned himself in Neptune’s head gear with Noel’s help.

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Fortunately, he didn’t run into one of these in his ocean dip.

IMG_4941Surrounded by running water and a fairly deserted sandbar also provided an opportunity to perfect our female rite of peeing in a circle.

Mid-afternoon found us back at Thapovan with Max, Diana and I scheduled for our traditional Ayurvedic massages. Our time in Baden-Baden had prepared me for this experience as well as Layne and Leslie’s descriptions of theirs.

The masseuse sits you on a stool, naked, and proceeds to anoint your scalp with oil prior to then asking you to lay down on the mat so she can use first her feet then her hands to jiggle the helll out of our muscles and flab.

One and a half hours later I exit dazed to stumble back to our room to take the first of many shampoo showers to get the oil out of my hair and some control over my numbed, cellulite body.

That night we walked around the village then took tuk-tuks to another beach resort, Kovalum. This area had become one of India’s popular honeymoon destinations, and Noel pointed out newly married woman who were wearing the traditional slinky armful of red bangles.

On the way we stopped at the local grocery store called the Divine Supermarket. We surmised it possibly got its name from the Russian Roulette one played when standing under a lump of limestone hanging by a not-so-substantial piece of fabric. Serving as a good luck omen, it seemed to me one could quickly enter the divine kingdom of death if stood below this slowly twirling object for any amount of time.

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The next morning Diana, Max and I were having our joint Ayurvedic consultation. We also had an opportunity to ask specific questions about our health, so I displayed my poka dots. That, along with some other questions, prompted the doctor to load me down with medicines. (I wish I could say I followed doctor’s orders, and I definitely believed in his diagnoses, but I can’t lie. After toting bottles of oil and batches of pills around, I slowly unloaded them in various hotel rooms. It was that or give up gift-purchasing space, and you can imagine what won out. It helped that one of the oils I discreetly left behind was castor oil.)

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The three of us also left with sheets of foods to-eat and not-to-eat. Unfortunately, as a 50-50 mix of deer and tiger (the other animal is elephant), I supposedly could have one food as deer but not as tiger and vice versa. And, yes, these diet sheets, too, went by the wayside.

If I was planning on staying there for a week or more, like a lot of the other guests (mainly European), I would probably attempt to follow the deer-tiger prescribed massages and diet. But, since I am a true creature of desired comfort, that wasn’t going to happen.

Plus, I had fallen in love with an Indian snack Noel had introduced to us in Hyderabad, and I had subsequently purchased a grocery bag full. I doubt it was on the “good to eat” list of either of my animals.

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We posed with one of the bags at the Trivandrum airport as we began our trek back north to one of the most magical places on earth:  the Taj Mahal.