I’m on a business trip to India. “Business trip?” She tells us!? Perhaps a tourism industry reunion – nope, never got here during my career in travel that spanned twenty years. Maybe a professional development seminar for educators? Yeah, right – I think I’ve been on four or five in the past eleven years, and they sure weren’t this far away. Nope. My “business” is the business of collecting experiences, which leads to having something significant to write about. At the moment, writing is my second hobby, after dancing, but maybe someday it’ll grow into a second source of income, too.
India’s been high on my bucket list for a while, but I wasn’t going to come here until the right circumstances presented themselves. That’s what happened when my Australian travel buddy (since 2008) announced she was coming here for a wedding. I was invited as her “plus one.” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I’ve been sooo over going to weddings in The States for a while now, where the bride and groom are more like performers, and the guests make up an often unconnected audience. Here, the process, which sometimes lasts up to week, is a communal event. Every participant’s presence is considered a blessing for the marriage, each ceremony laden with tradition and meaning.
The anxiety surrounding weddings in the U.S. often seems to bode bad karma to me, but this experience made me feel like I’d been accepted into a new community of fellowship every step of the way. Perhaps we have something to learn from the Indian approach to weddings, and from their generally tolerant culture itself.
There will have been four parts to this one week trip: the wedding celebration, the essential Taj Mahal visit, then two city trips: Jaipur and Kolkata, to be divided into a few essays. This relatively short trip has been just the right duration for a taste of India; it was a chance to figure out whether I’d want to return. That was affirmed within the first 24 hours of the trip.
The trip itself has been “a trip!” United Airlines is still capable, for all of its hulking, surly self to transport a person around the world. I used to sell so-called “Round-the-World” tickets like Cracker Jack through my early travel industry days at Tokyo American Express. I would create itineraries that joined United Airlines and others with partner carriers to take expatriates from Tokyo to home and back via exotic stopover destinations on “no-backtrack” tickets. I never got to partake of one myself, until I attempted to book this trip, and found that United’s best fare took me from L.A., through Newark, NJ, over Russia and an inordinate number of “-Stan” countries, into Delhi, then out through Tokyo, and back home. Finally, this is me, going “Around The World,” in a significant eight, as in Hanukah, not eighty, as in Verne, days.
Before I actually start writing my impressions of India itself, let me pontificate about my love of the pristine cleanliness, exquisite aromas, sounds and decor, and professionally-oriented service of an Asian or Indian hotel. It makes you not want to even bother going sightseeing. You are cosseted in a lap of service bordering on the obsequious, cleanliness bordering on the antiseptic, and buffet breakfasts bordering on the bacchanal. When I arrived at close to 10pm, I was immediately invited to partake of a gourmet feast of Indian delicacies with the wedding guests, who had been congregating since earlier in the evening.
Outside the hotel, infamous poverty is indeed still evident, along with large swaths of undeveloped, heavily littered, land masses. However, it felt refreshing, for a change, to be somewhere that has not been utterly westernized, even though you can see Citibank ATMs (thank heavens for which), Subway sandwich shops (sorry, but I don’t set foot in American ones either), and an occasional Starbucks (scored my collector’s cup on Day Two). The more you travel, the world gets smaller and places start looking similar; new locales are reminiscent of prior journeys. India, although an utterly unique destination has a “je ne sais quois” Vietnam meets Israel aura to it.
India possesses exactly the right mix of the oriental exoticism I’ve chased my whole life, yet has a European sensibility that is less from colonization than from the historical origins of western languages from Sanskrit on forward, to the availability of English language literature that has emanated from India and somewhat familiarizes us with the place in advance. India is so significant a worldwide crossroads that everyone should be on a first name basis with it. I am thoroughly enjoying the intersection of Asia and The Middle East, from waking up this morning to the call of the muezzin, to the presence of Buddhist statues, to the multicolored, multicultural art, everywhere.
Loving the cuisine of a country makes it a major draw, and India has not been a disappointment in that respect. Having shopped for scarves and silver from Turkey to Vietnam, here is the source, even if my trip has been dedicated to observation rather than trinket acquisition. In the land that produced Buddha, seeking material trappings aggressively seems inappropriate. The bursts of color, music, dance and many tenets of the religion and culture are alluring to all who are fortunate enough to have eyes, ears and minds open enough to experience them.
My next trip to India will include Mumbai and parts south to Kerala. Meanwhile, I am savoring every morsel I can get. Next up, which will be the third article in my 2015 travel series, will commence with the remainder of my trip: the Taj Mahal, Jaipur, Kolkata, plus a fleeting rhapsody of my few hours at Narita airport, ending momentarily with my return to Los Angeles. Then there’ll be a dance weekend in Pasadena that I will treat as a “destination” piece, after which I will continue on with my upcoming spring break Eastern European odyssey. Stay tuned.
Photo credit – Ruth Morris