Two Weeks in India – a Sensual Feast By Meera Kamra-Kelsey

Majestic Taj Mahal in Agra

Travel, in general, can be many things, according to one’s desires, physical & economic limits.  From a quiet all-inclusive resort on a warm island to a grueling schedule of sightseeing in an exotic faraway land.  India falls firmly into the latter category.  The world is intrigued by India’s successes these days – impressive economic growth to its evident success as a fully functioning democracy, even in hotbed Asia. There is the fragrant cuisine, colorful garb, THE movie.  To me, it is the land of my birth, where I have returned just a few times since leaving at age 12.

To be together for New Year’s Eve has been crucial for several of us pals.  December 31, 2009 would be our 14th together, no point breaking the pattern.  Anything to stave off the blues of marking another too-fast-past year!  We have been to interesting places every couple of years, – a safari in Kenya, Sparta, Cappadoccia, Antarctica… Though planning for India began almost 3 years ago, discussion with some pals began at least 20 years before that.  The task of putting together an adventurous while safe itinerary seemed insurmountable.  However, we all put our money where our mouth is & booked the fabled Palace on Wheels train through the desert province of Rajasthan.  Husband & I did the same trip over New Year’s Eve 1987/88; we would find much changed, all exciting.

Travel points gathered, cash saved, we flew on new-ish Jet Airways who use Brussels as interim hub. For such a long journey & time changes it is real nice to have lay-flat seats, legroom, attentive service & Bulgari (!) goodie kit.  Heck, even a set of nice soft knit jammies was offered & accepted.  Jet is just one example of India’s influence on the international biz scene.  Old pals from Toronto who were joining us coincidentally occupied the two seats right behind us.   As we disembarked from the plane in Delhi after about 20 hours in transit, I said aloud, “get ready for a full-out assault on ALL your senses”.  Indira Gandhi Airport was draped in winter fog. We would later discover this would be the socked-in weather pattern for Delhi for the next couple of weeks.

The spread at Bukhara, ITC Maurya, Delhi

We checked into the well-appointed ITC Maurya Hotel located in Delhi’s serene Diplomatic Enclave, with numerous embassies & consulates as neighbors.  It is an elegant hotel with attentive service but there is no ‘neighborhood’.  One cannot walk off the grounds to explore.  Security at the hotel was tight – metal detectors, vehicles checked inside, out, under, all bags screened or hand checked.  Security tight, apparently always, as this hotel is used by visiting pols & magnates.  A little more than usual as Delhi would soon host a huge conference for ex-pat investors & entrepreneurs.

All 17 of us were to stay there, but made our own arrangements & trickled in on different days.  Some after side trips to the UK, China, Sri Lanka, Maldives; Christmas plans the cause of other staggered arrivals.  We were eight Canadians & nine Americans. The group ranged in age from 14 to 70, hailing from Los Angeles to Boston, to in & around Toronto.  Our oldest friends were with us. We included two teenagers, true & might-as-well-be-family groups & a couple of couples who had never met bunch before except by group e-mail.

I was in touch with the hotel concierge for some months to arrange dining & tours in Delhi.  We had reserved for dinner at the hotel’s incredible restaurant, Bukhara.  This is regularly on the world’s top

Lobby of Hotel Maurya

restaurant lists & a Delhi fave of international glitterati.  A great opportunity, not to be missed.  We were joined by a fave aunt & uncle & my Mom, who was traveling in India for special family events & a month-long yoga-training course.  What a woman!  The restaurant is always fully booked & raucous, dinner was awesome – ‘Indian frontier’ tandoori specialties, lots of kebabs, nans & tasty dals, excellent wine.  Much yakky conversation & excitement about our upcoming time in India.

A private club floor was usually a serene spot for breakfast or a pre-dinner cocktail. Now, the place was abuzz owing to the ex-pat business conference.  I was in heaven as I had masala dosa or iddly for breakfast, husband was happy to have non-Indian for at least one meal a day.  Here, our group was graciously accommodated for pre-dinner cocktails with delish nibbles.  Room service food was appetizing & fairly priced.  French press coffee was served at the hotel even though instant coffee is still in wide use in India. Fun to try spiced, sweet Indian chai anyway.

When husband & I took the palace on Wheels 22 years ago, it was the original narrow-gauge train with impressive shiny steam engine & original cars built for Maharajas, dating from the 1920s to the ’50s. Back then, the train stopped every evening, armed security protected us, we disembarked to go to the bar car, stopped later, walked to the dining car, etc. The current train has since been updated to wider gauge; all sleeping cabins have en-suite bathrooms.  Still a bit cramped as it is a train after all, but with wonderful regal touches.  Each car has four sleeping compartments & a salon with comfy seating for socializing, reading etc.  We had two wonderful attendants per car to see to all our needs.  This time, we were able to walk between cars while the train was underway.  A limited 102 passengers were on board, why we booked early.  Special departures dates fill up fast.  Plus the running season is short, just from November through February.  The Thar Desert can be unbearably hot at other times.

We boarded the Palace on Wheels on Dec. 30.  Much of the itinerary was the same for us as before but with new twists.  Some towns felt the same; others have become much more touristy.  Newfound wealth among the huge Indian middle class has permitted many more to tour their own country.  We had lots more tours, off-train dining & entertainment events than before.  We visited numerous magical palaces, forts, temples, mausoleums, a few museums & an important tiger sanctuary.

The train trip is a bit pricey but all meals & sightseeing are included.  Food on board was quite good.  Chefs regularly prepared an Indian menu as well as a continental one daily.  Extra-spicy Indian was available for hardier souls.  White glove service for all meals taken on the train.  Several of us would await the ‘Indian dishes’ – after all, the food was a big reason we were in India!  Some breakfasts were intimately taken in our salons, attentively served by our attendants.  Al fresco breakfast & dinner buffets were occasionally enjoyed on the grounds of glorious, remote hotel resorts, often accompanied with local music & dance programs.  The food was so good, good thing we had rigorous walking tours every day.

The train bar is well stocked with international wines, champagne & a full slate of beers & spirits.  India is producing very good wine (Sula) & not too bad champagne that we tried (Madame de Pompadour!).  And Kingfisher beer has long been internationally known.  Bar prices are pretty well the same as anywhere else in the world.  The bar car was a fun spot to meet old & new pals nightly.

Here are the cities we visited – grab an atlas to follow through the northwestern province of Rajasthan:

Jaipur – called the pink city as many structures are built with pink sandstone.  Home of the famous Hawa Mahal & Jantar Mantar, an ancient, still accurate observatory. The elegant City Palace is partially occupied by the royal family to this day.  The renowned beauty, the Queen Mother Gayatri Devi has recently passed away but her jet-setting son, ‘Bubbles’ still resides in the palace.  He is now quite advanced in years. We saw him walking about with a small entourage.  Later, we all rode elephants up a steep hill to the Amber fort for touring & a nice lunch.

‘Taxi’ stand for Amber Fort, Jaipur

New Year’s Eve!  Emboldened by fine French champagne, we discoed & bhangra-ed while the train chugged along.  Just before midnight, we disembarked & were treated to lots of lovely fireworks set off by train staff.  It was a fantastic way to welcome the New Year surrounded by old friends & new.

Lake Palace, Udaipur

Udaipur – called the white city as buildings are painted brilliant white; has the Lake Palace (middle of a lake!)  Where a James Bond movie was partly filmed (Octopussy, ‘83); now a Taj Group luxury hotel.  A very full day of sightseeing & shopping for pashminas, miniature paintings.

Botanical gardens, Udaipur

Jodhpur – called the blue city, as many houses are painted blue to cool them in the heat of summer.  Stunning, well renovated Mehrangarh Fort & Umaid Bhawan were highlights.

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Jaisalmer – called the golden city, just amazing, built out of golden sandstone.  Much more touristy than before.  The city partially occupies an ancient hilltop fort built with dry construction, i.e., no mortar.  Apparently, the presence of tourists will cause the fort walls to eventually crumble from excess moisture.  The fort is home to several delicately carved building facades (havelis) & ancient Jain temples.  What a shame it will be for this place to fall apart.

Haveli, Jaisalmer

Rode a camel to the desert dunes.  Not a comfortable or pleasant ride, but still a thrill.  Hundreds of folks walk way out to the dunes just to watch the sunset.  We were quite near the Pakistan border at this point.  Lots of military presence in & around town & at the train station underscored just where we were!  Excellent dinner outdoors, more fireworks.

Ranthambore (Sawai Madhopur) & Chittorgarh – Former is the site of a tiger sanctuary; a cool early-morning safari experience. We viewed spotted deer, wild boars, peacocks, monkeys but no big striped felines.  Did photograph what appeared to be a tiger paw print.

Victory Tower, Chittorgarh

Chittorgarh is a historic site with fantastic temples & structures; impressive carved Victory Tower.  A well-composed sound & light show with

Husband & me at Taj Mahal

haunting full moon overhead.  Here, I learned that Meera, the famed devotee of Lord Krishna, for whom I was named, was a royal princess raised in this very fort.

Agra – site of the Taj Mahal, which still takes my breath away even though I have seen it several times.  The structure is a mausoleum housing the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal & her devoted Mughal emperor husband, Shah Jahan, who built it in her honour.  It is a magical place, all in white marble & studded with semi-precious stones.  The Taj has thankfully been saved from the ravages of destructive air pollution through actions of environmentalists.  Only electric vehicles are allowed near the Taj.  The Taj Mahal is on everyone’s bucket list.  Our travel companions were exhilarated by the sight.  Visited the impressive Agra Fort in the afternoon.  In the evening, treated to a song-&-dance cultural program about romantic history associated with the Taj.

Taj Mahal detail

After 7 days on board the train, we returned to Delhi & checked back in to the Maurya Hotel.  I had pre-arranged two half-day tours & a bit of shopping for the bunch.  This went fairly well though traffic in Delhi can be nasty, worsened by road construction related to a LRT/ subway/ metro system.  The car is unfortunately king, exacerbated by a burgeoning middle class & new wealth.  Few drivers obey rules of the road but authorities are working on it.  Still, painted lines & stoplights appear futile.  Saw no accidents but there are dings on almost every vehicle!  We saw no holy cows though they are sure to roam smaller neighborhoods.

Temple wall detail

We saw what we could with time, fog & traffic limitations.  Impressive Humayun’s Tomb, Ba’hai Lotus Temple & the Birla Temple from my childhood.  India Gate & Parliament Buildings were a bit restricted to us due to impending January 26 Republic Day Parade preparations.  Metal barriers were being erected to contain expected crowds & security personnel were everywhere.  This annual event is a show of military might, a message aimed at potentially hostile neighbours.  We found that many monuments have been cleaned up & show nicely.  Delhi is feverishly prepping to host the Commonwealth games in October 2010.  Air pollution is much less than before.  Many public transit vehicles are new or converted to compressed natural gas.  Old buses are being replaced & drivers trained in public relations.

A cousin hosted us for a pleasant dinner at the venerable old Delhi Golf Club.  An aunt & uncle hosted our group for lunch at the private Gymkhana Club.  Several aunts & uncles came to the luncheon, my cousins came; all these people I had not seen for 22 years. I was very moved & it was a great experience for the bunch to meet my family.

India Gate, barriers for Republic Day parade, January 26

Memories are still zinging around in our heads.  It was a great trip, a terrific opportunity to intimately connect with old pals, better know newer ones & reconnect with family.  All went really well, considering where we were, what could have happened.  Many of us had long delays in transit on the way home, due to heavy Delhi winter fog & snowstorms in Europe.  However, we were safe, no ‘trouble’ anywhere we visited, we tipped well as ‘everybody’s gotta eat’ & just three of us experienced mild ‘Delhi-belly’.

For, me this was a spiritual journey.  With husband & a great bunch of pals along, it was both familiar & enigmatic.  ‘Incredible India’, to be sure, seen through the eyes of others.  What a fine way to welcome 2010!