India – you might just like it

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TOP TOURIST SITE: Christine and Paul Buddle, sitting on the Princess Diana Seat in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra.

IF last year was anything at all, it was a year of contrast in our house. Earlier in the year we winged our way to a glorious stay on the remote Chatham Islands, followed a few months later by a trip to the densely populated nation of India – something of a contrast in anyone’s language.

The alluring images of the Taj Mahal were etched in my mind from an otherwise forgotten geography lesson in school and the time now just seemed right to go.

Our trip was planned for early October, hoping for slightly cooler temperatures than the usual summer heats of around 45 degrees. We did manage that to some extent, most days were between 34 and 38 degrees. Small mercy indeed, as we still sweltered after leaving our New Zealand winter.

Our first stop was the nation’s capital of Delhi, population close to 20 million and, I swear, all on the road at once. I will not dwell on traffic matters, as to the Indians it is just another part of life and to us just an eye-opening shambles. They know where they are going and that’s all that is important, as did our gold-star driver.

In spite of the volumes of cars, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, hand carts, people, trucks, cows, water buffalo, dogs, camels and even an elephant on the road, we saw no evidence of aggression or malice. We could certainly all learn from the patience of these drivers.

We travelled independently on a pre-arranged itinerary, with our own driver in a very welcome air-conditioned car. It meant we knew exactly where and when we would be but also left us leeway for any changes we might make on the way. Our day in Delhi was frantic, confusing, hot and eye-opening. We had no idea where we were going and we merely ogled at the sights of poverty, people, impossible loads on vehicles and some of the revered landmarks.

We had an entertaining hour sitting in the back of a rickshaw, ridden by some poor little Indian man making his way with patience and difficulty through the overladen market streets of Chandni Chowk. It was a chaotic jumble of rickshaws like ours, carts piled high with all manner of goods, mobile deities, beeping horns, huge pot holes, painted cows and really, no-one going anywhere fast at all. Wonderful stuff, we grinned our whole way around.

Delhi left us somewhat exhausted, much of that attributable to the overwhelming of our senses. It was quite some introduction to India.

Our next destination was Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The distance of 260kms took all day, even though much of the drive was on uncluttered motorways. The land we drove past was flat, farmed with crops and a little unremarkable. Arriving in Agra was somewhat disappointing as the dirt and rubbish seemed worse than what we had seen in Delhi.

There was a sigh of relief when we turned into the gates of the impressive Jaypee Palace Hotel. Clipped hedges, beautiful gardens, a large red sandstone wall running around the perimeter, it seemed like our own private fort. Inside the hotel it was quiet with large spaces, marble, beautiful floral arrangements and wonderful hotel staff. Quite a contrast to life outside.

We settled in and were then ready to meet our local guide and go off to view a sunset over the Taj Mahal. We did this from the opposite side of the Yamuna River to where the building is, to give us a great overall perspective and a hankering to get closer.

Even from across the river we could sense the beauty and the magnetism of this place. In the morning we were whisked away again to catch the early morning light and it was quite an emotive feeling to fully realise such a long-held aspiration. This large white marble building, a testament to love, is quite remarkable. With perfect symmetry, gleaming white marble and relative simplicity, the Taj Mahal and the grounds that surround it were certainly a compelling sight and I was thrilled to finally behold, then touch and run my fingers over this magnificent edifice. Bucket list – tick.

The next day it was already hot when we left the hotel and our first visit was to Fatehpur Sikri, a huge Mughal fortified city built from red sandstone. Our lovely guide gave us a complete historical run down but with the rising heat and standing outside with little shelter, it didn’t do much for our information retention.

As a UNESCO site it has been well restored and is indeed a very impressive site. There are three palaces, a mosque, harem, courts, gardens, large public squares and more. The whole area spreads over eight square kilometres. The building architecture and embellishments are a mix of Hindu and Persian styles and there was certainly much to see and photograph. It never fails to amaze me just what the rich and influential folk of the day were able to have constructed.

Back in our car with our lovely driver Gurched Gopi – now nicknamed Bob – we headed towards Jaipur. Bob asked if we would mind a short deviation to a favourite place of his. Happy to be shown anything new, we drove a short distance to a place called Abhaneri.

Expecting a temple or similar, we were quite amazed to face the Chand Baori step well. This well is over 1000 years old, a beautiful geometrical marvel over 30 metres deep, 30 metres across and with a series of 3500 steps lined up in absolute geometrical symmetry.

This place was a total surprise and we were thrilled to see it. Big thanks to Bob for taking us there. In the small village outside, he took us to a young man making lacquer bracelets over a small fire.

He was quickly and deftly working the heated and pliable lacquer into a round shape, adding glittery bits and ending up with a wonderful piece of jewellery. I do wonder if he had any skin left on his fingertips.

Purchases were made easily. They were very inexpensive gifts made all the more special by having watched them being made. The next visit was into a very small front yard of an older Indian couple’s home. For their living, they made small, rustic, clay drinking pots, incense holders and the like. There was a great pile of them under a lean-to shelter.

Squatting in front of a manual potter’s wheel, the gentleman showed us how he made them and was obviously proud to have foreign visitors there. Bob, of course, did the verbal translations for us and it was so wonderful to have a glimpse behind the wall of a genuine Indian home. We felt very privileged and just loved this brief visit.

Our choice of hotel in Jaipur was the Samode Haveli, a fascinating heritage Indian mansion, with rooms all set around a series of internal courtyards. Our hotel hostess was a beautiful lady, proud of the environment she worked in, and we followed her through a series of corridors, steps, stairs and doorways to our room. We had doubts we would find our way out again.

We did of course, to grace the dining room with our presence. This room was gorgeous. Pale coloured walls and many photos of past important folk and places, white linen and silver table settings, it was all so immaculate. I had forgotten to bring my reading glasses and couldn’t read the menu, so our inspiring waiter offered to select dishes he thought I would like and he was 100 percent right.

Mouth-watering vegetarian dishes of spinach, paneer and dhal. Delicious. There are not many places I know that could give that kind of special service. Breakfast in the morning was also great and I did take a liking to dosa, a thin pancake filled (in my case) with lightly spiced potatoes. This hotel really was a treat in all respects.

The day out in Jaipur with our guide was very interesting. Known as the pink city, as at one time the ruling Maharajah decreed that all buildings be painted pink (or a red colour really). It certainly gave everything a coherent look. The areas we went through also looked cleaner and tidier.

The inner city streets were lined with bright clothes and souvenir items, making everything look bright and colourful. We stopped to take in the sight of the Hawa Mahal, or Wind Palace. This intriguing five-storey high facade, built in elaborate fashion, was erected so the royal women of the day could observe street festivals and life outside, while not being seen.

We visited the City Palace Museum, where they have an area dedicated to astronomical instruments and sun dials. The largest sun dial in the world is here and all of them are still accurately measuring time, astrology and other things that eluded me. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to other subjects at school.

Our final stay was in the city of Udaipur, which sits alongside Lake Pichola. It was so good to see a body of water. Many of the buildings are constructed with white marble. We had no idea that

India mined so much of this. It is everywhere. Our hotel, the Trident Udapiur was completely finished in green Udaipur marble inside – quite beautiful.

This hotel had large grounds, a great pool and once was the site of a hunting lodge. There is still a reserve area that homes spotted deer, wild boar, peacocks and there were plenty of birds about.

The meals here were delicious and the dining room staff could not have been more attentive.

They helped us choose, brought things to our table for us to try and were funny and engaging and just great to be around. Apart from an interesting tour around the city, the lake and the elaborate City Palace, our highlight here was to the local village of Dhar.

We were the only visitors there that day and the village is being encouraged to open quietly to tourists, take pride in their surrounds and what they do. No money is exchanged, generally only pencils and books for the children. One family proudly showed us into their small mud-built hut, complete with goats and invited me to help make chapatti over the small cooking fire.

All translated again by our guide, but there was no mistaking their hilarity when my ability to roll out a perfect round of dough was a bit of a failure. There were three generations in this house and they were obviously fascinated by their white-skinned visitors. The children were funny, as they always are, following us closely and gleefully posing for photos. We were invited to milk one of the goats, but politely declined in deference to the goat. I was offered to be dressed up in full Indian costume, but in this heat I also politely declined. Altogether, it truly was a magical day out.

Our trip has been an experience that has grown and continued to enthuse us after the event. We did expect to be confronted and we were, but we knew that would happen. Our itinerary with Total Holiday Options went without any hitches. We had the best guides, driver and hospitality.

English was well spoken and we had no problems with communication.

We loved the food and had great meals everywhere. Masala tea or a cold beer at roadhouse cafes, samosas and naan bread were all good choices. The hotel meals were, of course, something to look forward to. We were taken shopping, to authentic artisans or outlets and although we needed nothing, we have come home with some delightful purchases.

If shopping is your thing, India is the place for you. Our money went a long way. In all, it was an enlightening and inspiring trip. There was plenty that made us grateful for the way of life we have in New Zealand, but there were many philosophies and insights that made us appreciate the

Indian way. Would we return to India? Definitely, yes. I can certainly see how this country leaves you wanting more.

Christine Buddle

-Contributed

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