If you don't know where you're going, any road will lead you there. --Lewis Carroll
Orange may be the new black, but India is saffron, indigo, marigold and emerald all rolled into one. The colors hit your senses at every turn, as does the sheer size of the crowds in the cities. India's population is over 1.2 billion, second only to China's at 1.4 billion. Our guide in Delhi (population 25 million) was amazed to learn that our 7-by-7-mile city by the bay has a population of only 838,000. As for the smells, think Indian spices, exhaust fumes and incense. In the cities, the sounds are a cacophony of horns from every conceivable kind of vehicle.
Passage to India
The reason for my journey to India was an unusual one. Sixty years ago, my father attended a British boarding school in Darjeeling called St. Paul's School. We, of course, know Darjeeling as a kind of tea, but this Cambridge-affiliated private boys' school is situated in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, offering magnificent views of Mount Kanchenjunga. It was founded in 1823 and patterned after a military institution to keep the young students busy and their minds off of living away from home.
For as long as I can remember, my dad had talked about his schooling in India. Boarding school is not uncommon, but the reason for my dad's attendance was. He was born in Iran to Christian Assyrian parents who wanted nothing more than to emigrate to America. So at the tender age of eleven, my father and his 10-year-old brother traveled to the school, accompanied by my grandfather. The journey was arduous: it took ten days by car, steamship and train to reach Darjeeling. The British had colonized India two hundred years before, building standard-gauge railroads. But the final leg of the journey to the school was a six-hour ride on a narrow-gauge locomotive known as the "Toy Train," which my sister and I renamed the "Harry Potter train."
My father and his brother would not see their parents again for six years. Their only means of communication was through writing weekly letters. These letters often crossed paths with those from their parents, but they kept the family connected. My father's heart-wrenching story is witness to the sacrifices his parents made for their sons' education. It's the quintessential immigrant story of hard work and dedication to achieve the American dream.
To celebrate his 80th birthday in October, my sister and I traveled with my father to India. He had been back only once, with my husband and brother-in-law ten years ago, since graduating in 1952. This time around, my sister and I were not going to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime father/daughter adventure.
The part of India we saw is known as the Golden Triangle, a tourist mecca that includes Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. The trip lasted eight days and covered over six hundred miles, though the distance sometimes felt much greater due to the many unpaved roads. India has two faces: calm and chaos, wealth and poverty. We saw both. Our adventure began in Old Delhi, which was established by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1638. At the famous Red Fort, we traded in our car for rickshaws to view the open-air markets. We toured Jamal Masjid, the best-known mosque in India, as well as Qutb Minar, the second-tallest minaret in India. We concluded with a visit to Raj Ghat, the resting place of Mahatma Gandhi. An eternal flame burns atop a very simple memorial in a park-like setting. The memorial is perhaps what Gandhi would have wanted: simple, humble and peaceful. The next day, we set out for Agra Fort, the work of Akbar the Great. This enormous structure from the sixteenth century is built entirely of red sandstone. Our sunset visit to the Taj Mahal, just north of Agra Fort, was well worth the wait. The white marble mausoleum was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who bore the shah fourteen children. In Jaipur, we toured, by elephant, the unforgettable Amber Fort and palace perched high on a hill, and the impressive Jantar Mantar, an astronomical observatory built in the early 1700s by Maharaja Jai Singh II, the great warrior-astronomer to whom the city owes its name.
Tips for Travelers to India
If you're lucky enough to be able to visit this fascinating country, here are some tips for your adventure:
1. Take health precautions in advance. Make sure you have inoculations for typhoid, hepatitis A and B and pertussis. Also advised are antibiotics and medications for malaria. To avoid "Delhi Belly," never leave home without hand wipes and sanitizer, Imodium and "tush" wipes. Be prepared, or be sorry.
2. Hire a private guide. Secure the best guides/drivers possible in advance of your trip, through a travel agent or referrals from friends who have been to India. Never wait until you arrive, especially during high season. But be advised that when even the best guide says a tour will last for four hours, he really means eight.
3. Carry snacks. Cows are sacred in India, which means no beef on this trip. Pack nuts, peanut butter packs and protein bars in your suitcase to have on hand when touring. They will sustain you during the long drives.
4. Steel yourself for the traffic. It helps if your driver was a Formula One Racer in a past life. Traffic in the cities is habitually gridlocked with cars, tuk tuks, cows and camels coming at you from every direction. Literally. Due to an unpleasant case of motion sickness, I was relegated to the front seat with my ginger ale, Tums and more twisty turns and near misses than I care to remember. Luckily, I lived to tell this story.
5. Pack less, not more. In case you haven't read my travel book, please note that one suitcase is plenty. Pack with a basic color in mind to keep things simple and choose accessories in complementary colors. Leave your fine jewels at home; there are plenty to buy in Jaipur.
We knew our Merchant Ivory moment was over when we saw a Starbucks at the airport coming home. But if only for a short while, my sister and reverted back to our childhood when my dad began drawing a map of our journey on a paper napkin. Geography was never one of my strong suits.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said it best: "The journey of a one thousand miles begins with just one step." Our India trip was a long and exotic journey, a world away from ours. We will long remember the kind hospitality from our tour guides: Gihan, Assif, the two Ranjits, Shan and Yogi. On our last evening together, we engaged the services of a local palm reader. If his predictions are correct, we will all be living long lives. The next family adventure is already in the works.
Lisa Grotts is a globetrotter. Like her father and grandfather, she is also an author. Her book, A Traveler's Passport to Etiquette, is available on Amazon. Lisa has been quoted by the Times of India, Condé Nast Traveler and the New York Times. She is involved in many Bay Area charitable causes and cultural institutions, including San Francisco Suicide Prevention, the California Pacific Medical Center Foundation and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on www.Twitter.com/LisaGrotts and www.Facebook.com/LisaGrotts.