You do not travel if you are afraid of the unknown, you travel for the unknown, that reveals you with yourself. ~Ella Maillart
Two of the greatest gifts we can give our children are roots and wings. ~Hodding Carter
During my 18 months living and working in India, I planned to travel extensively. After the first 9 months, I noticed I was spending more time in my home town of Pune than I was exploring the marvels India and the surrounding countries had to offer. So, I vowed to travel somewhere, if only for a long weekend, at least once a month for my remaining days living in this part of the world.
My travels took me on a tour of India when my fiance visited in Feb 2014. I took solo trips to Kathmandu in Nepal, Sigiriya and Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka, and The Machan in Lonavala India. I went home and visited Yellowstone in the US with Irene, and Bodh Gaya in India with a former brother in law.
My final trip was another tour of Northern India this time with one of my daughters and her boyfriend. That trip was my last hurrah prior to moving back to the USA. I made the offer to all of my kids that I would pay half their roundtrip airfare to India if they wanted to visit. Unfortunately, only one of them was able to avail themselves of the offer. So, for this final traipse around India, I was accompanied by my daughter, Samantha, and her boyfriend, Josh.
The last hurrah included places I had already visited (Taj Mahal, Bodh Gaya, Jaipur) chosen to provide my daughter a taste of Northern India. We also visited Khajuraho, a place I had wanted to visit ever since I read that missionaries, upon discovering these ancient temples, wanted to destroy them because they viewed some of the art on the temples as ‘sinful’. Now, I’m not one that seeks to engage in acts which can be deemed sinful. But neither am I one who chooses to walk solely in puritanical circles. I attempt to put my toe into the waters of all worlds for I like to experience and assess by my own eyes and mind not through the biases of others. So, I knew I had to visit the Khajuraho Temple complex. And I am very glad I did.
My daughter had two places she wanted to visit while in India. The Taj was on top of her two location list. We visited it twice. Once during the morning and again during the full moon. The Taj is open for night viewing 5 days per month. The night of the full moon and two days on either side of the full moon.
This was my 2nd visit to the Taj. I knew what to expect. Still I was blown away by it’s magnificence. I have seen some amazing man made structures yet none, to date, is in the same category as the Taj Mahal. Sure, some are bigger. Some are marvels of modern engineering. But for beauty and history and old school craftsmanship none that I have visited measure up.
As was the case wherever we traveled, locals stopped to have their photos taken with us. At one point, Josh was relaxing away from the crowds admiring the Taj and soaking in some sunlight when people started wandering his way. Eventually, ten guys had their pictures taken with him. It was fun for me to watch from a distance. I have experienced this phenomena of take a picture with the Westerner numerous times. I always try to be gracious and allow the pictures. Plus I’m a bit of a ham so being stopped for pics strokes my ego in all the right ways.
A change from my previous visit occurred when a troop of monkeys made their way across the grounds. They hung around the back side for a while posing for pictures as the masses walked by. For the most part, they ignored the people. One did give me an evil eye when I took a few pictures to many. I quickly backed off so as not to arouse her ire any higher. Though small, they are quick and have sharp canines and I didn’t want to tempt fate.
We hung around the Taj and her adjoining buildings, the Mosque and a similar building added to maintain the symmetry of the entire ensemble. Thankfully, Sammy and Josh are not hit and run tourists. That is, they don’t show up, snap a few pics, then run to the next viewing point. Like me, they are lingerers. We hung around the Taj for quite some time soaking up the atmosphere and watching people.
The night viewing required pre purchase of tickets with a photo ID. I had set that up with the hotel a couple of months prior to our visit. The security at night is very tight. We were checked multiple times to ensure we had the appropriate ticket and were not carrying any illegal objects (food, weapons, cell phones, etc) into the monument. India, like many other countries, has it’s share of crazies that like to cause destruction to make a point so I understand the hyper vigilant security measures.
Our half hour visit was scheduled for 9 pm while the moon was very high in the sky. A high moon is a small moon so it did not shed much light on the Taj. I was able to get at least one decent picture which took quite a bit of fiddling with the camera settings and using a fence as a makeshift tripod.
Stop number two, a short plane ride from Agra, was the city of Khajuraho home to the Khajuraho Temple complex. The trip did not start out well. When we arrived at the airport the driver I had arranged from the hotel was nowhere to be seen. I was about to call the hotel when I was directed to a taxi looking for passengers. We ended up using his services both days at Khajuraho.
I loved Khajuraho! We visited the Western section the day we arrived. I also visited it the next morning while Sammy and Josh did yoga and had massages because I didn’t get enough time to explore the temples in the depth during our visit the evening prior. There were two other sections, Eastern and Southern, with fewer temples. Unfortunately, I did not plan enough time to take in all three sections.
The Western section is a marvel of ancient craftsmanship and sculpture. About 10% of the total sculptures are erotic in nature (and at least one that shows beastiality in the form of a man and the hind quarters of a horse…the rest I leave to your imagination). This 10% is the reason these are also known as the Kama Sutra temples. By the look of the carvings, the ancient Indians seemed to have perfected sex. Or, at least, made significant strides toward perfecting the art of pleasure through gymnastics.
Historical records indicate that Khajuraho temple site had 85 temples by 12th century. Of these, only about 20 temples have survived. What really surprised me was the quality of the temples. Most of the ancient places I have visited in India were in a state of advanced decay and there was trash thrown about. Khajuraho is very well maintained, clean, and has flowers growing across much of the grounds. I highly recommend visiting this UNESCO Heritage site.
By far, the highlights of Jaipur where places I had not previously visited both which were recommended by our driver, Ganesh. He was quick to smile and had an infectious laugh. Thankfully, his driving style was more conservative than is typically observed in India. Still, Sammy’s stomach remained on the queasy side of the street.
Galta: We visited the neighborhood of Galta which is not to be confused with the Galta Monkey Temple. This neighborhood, I believe, is on the other side of the Galta Monkey Temple at the bottom of the backside of the hill. I thought I was able to see some of the buildings in the temple high up on the mountain from the street level but am not perfectly sure it’s the same place. Though, I would place a small bet that it is.
Monkeys abounded in this little neighborhood that consisted of one main street and a few alley type streets. They shared it with people, goats, cows, and a sow suckling a brood of piglets. Local vendors sold us some ‘Monkey Food’ also known as peanuts and showed us how to feed the energetic primates. After some initial nervousness, they are wild animals after all, we were able to feed the monkeys from our hands.
I have long been a fan of monkeys. Probably, because I see some of my mischievousness in their eyes resulting in a connection…at least from my end. I’m not sure they saw me as anything other than a feed bag.
While I was taking some pictures, I looked up to see a white cow coming at me from a foot or so away. I was able to get my hand up and deflect some of the force as it tried to gore me. Luckily, the horns were flat so, instead of piercing my skin, it only left a bruise on my chest. What I did to raise it’s ire, I have no idea. Afterward, I kept an eye on it to ensure there was no repeat action.
Elephants: After Galta, we headed out into the country to visit an elephant housing area. Here Sammy and Josh were able to feed, ride, and bathe an elephant.
I stood back and played photographer while they enjoyed themselves. I chose not to go for a ride because my fiance loves elephants and riding one is something I want to share with her. Hopefully, it will happen the next time we visit India together.
Besides, I like taking pictures as it engages my creative side. Frequently, while photographing, I enter ‘The Zone’ and find hours have flown by without my realizing it. In addition, as a father, I love seeing my children smiling and enjoying themselves. So, taking photographs while Sammy and Josh were in an emotional place approaching ecstasy was a perfect way for me to spend the three hours we spent with the elephants.
The last places we visited was Bodh Gaya home to the Bodhi Tree beneath which Siddhārtha Gautama found enlightenment and became the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Bodh Gaya had long been on the list of places I wanted to visit in India but had difficulty in making the journey. Oddly enough, I visited it twice over a span of three weeks. First with a former brother-in-law who was making a pilgrimage for a deceased Buddhist friend and this time with my daughter as it was the second must see place on her India bucket list. I was glad to see it a second time. There were a number of pictures stuck in my head that I didn’t get the first time that I wanted to capture this time.
Getting to Bodh Gaya required a three and a half hour drive from the city of Patna. This journey is easily the most harrowing drive I’ve ever experienced in India. It is so unnerving and bouncy and swervy that all three of us took dramamine to ease any chance of motion sickness. Our driver was also a bit more, how shall I say, aggressive with his driving. At one point, the mirror on the passenger side hit a pedestrian with a good THUMP that woke Sammy from a semi nap.
No, we weren’t driving on the sidewalk. Many people in India walk in the streets. The driver didn’t bother to stop and see if the chap was ok. That’s India! Next time, if there is a next time, I am going to find a way to fly into Bodh Gaya even if it requires a long layover someplace in India. The drive, which I have now made 4 times, is just too stressful.
Our first stop was the Giant Buddha statue. We went early because the angle of the light in the afternoon makes for poor pictures. Plus we were able to walk to a few of the temples erected by the various Buddhist countries. Next we hit a store to barter for souvenirs. I have learned, through practice, to barter with the local merchants. This way, I feel I am getting a good deal whether or not I actually am.
The next stop was the Mahabodhi temple. We checked in our shoes and ran the gauntlet of ‘government sanctioned tour guides’. These guys never leave tourists alone. I showed Sammy and Josh around a bit before leaving them to fend for themselves. It may have been a bit selfish but I wanted to be alone. I wanted to sit at the foot of the Bodhi Tree and watch all the people that made the pilgrimage to the source of Buddhism. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” And I wanted to observe the myriad of believers so I sat and watched for a couple of hours.
We returned again later in the day. At our second visit, there was definitely a different vibe. It seemed most of the visitors earlier in the day were tourists coming to take a peek at the place where Buddhism originated. Later in the day, most of the people I would put into the category of believers. Many were in robes of many different colors (I only recognized the maroon and yellow of the Tibetan Buddhists), many were engaged in various modes of meditation, many had their heads shaved. This group intrigued me and kept me captivated for quite a long time.
CCD / Pune
Every morning while in Pune, we took the short work from my society (apartment complex) to my local coffee shop, CCD. It’s a place at which I spent many an hour blogging, photographing, watching India life unfold.
The first visit we made was by my choice. The remaining visits, which occurred every day we were in Pune, were also the choice of Sammy and Josh. We sat there for a few hours each morning simply watching India. Josh and Sammy downing cup after cup of espresso and bottle after bottle of water. We sat there taking in the India experience until Sammy had a pressing need to return to my flat and go to the bathroom. She wasn’t comfortable using the semi-clean bathroom at CCD.
A statement from Josh pretty much summed up their (and my) experience in India when he said to me, “Nothing you could have told could ever have prepared me for the India.” This he said on their first day in India as we were walking to the coffee shop.
India, to someone raised in a quiet suburb as I was, is a constant sensory onslaught. There is always something vying for ones attention. I will definitely miss this sensory onslaught when I move back to the USA.