Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Spice Girl Caravan To Delhi India

Katie Foster at The Taj Mahal
As a voracious traveler, I have numerous beautiful memories of extraordinary trips – a romantic sunset camel ride across the Wadi Rum in Jordan, a dreamy interlude at an idyllic inn by the village of Sirince near Ephesus Turkey, flying falcons and eagles in the desert of Ras Al Khaimah UAE, a harrowing transatlantic ship crossing from Lisbon Portugal to Miami USA, and a superb Corvette tour down Florida’s byways. Yet, I now have one that tops all of these: India!

This is not just any trip to India. This is the ultimate elegant journey. My sister Paty Barr’s impending trip to Dubai gives rise to a plan for adding a second destination. We take no time at all to decide on India. The mysterious history of Sultans and Maharajahs with their harems, the mystical aura of exotic temples and palaces, the visions of us wrapped in stunningly beautiful saris, plus elephants and tigers – oh my! Besides, both Paty and I missed the 1960s backpacking across India rite of passage. 

Chandi Chowk Is Totally Bazaar
We are joined on this 11-day odyssey by realtor Kathryn Brandt from Minneapolis Minnesota and photographer Jani Diedam from Indianapolis Indiana. Together we will travel through the golden route of India, visiting Delhi, Udaipur, Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra. On our adventure, we are greeted by saluting elephants, showered with rose petals, and terrified by a death defying rickshaw ride through Delhi’s Chandi Chowk Bazaar.

Yoga Class or I'm a Little Teacup
We pray at an Easter dawn service with a small village church, hunt for wild tigers to photograph, rest in the Maharana’s private palace courtyard, gain an appreciation of the ancient art of miniature painting, marvel at the beauty of India’s rural countryside, luxuriate our weary selves in the opulent Oberoi Hotels (complete with complimentary yoga at 7 each morning) and are rendered speechless at the majesty of the Taj Mahal.

We are treated like royalty. It is total paradise. All of this is possible thanks to the flawless (and I mean flawless) preparations made by Vivek at Elegant Journeys. The first decision we make is which mode of travel to use. Backpacking is still a rite of passage, but we feel we are well past that stage. Local trains could be interesting and different. “Madam, four unescorted American women traveling on a train through India is not a wise choice,” was the demur suggestion from Vivek.

With Our Driver Manoj (Hint: the Brown One)
There is the popular tour package of 11 cities in 8 days, traveling in a large bus with 50 of your newest and best friends. We hear too many disaster stories about these. “Elegant trains with clean beautiful accommodations.” That looks interesting, until we realize we would travel all night only to disembark with the other 300 passengers to visit the same tourist site. Not what we are looking for. Zabardast! (Hindi for Eureka!) We have it. The tour operator’s suggestion that we travel across India in a private car with our own driver sounds just right. We never imagine what a brilliant decision this will turn out to be. The planning is finished. Let the journey begin.

Arriving in Dehli airport, we are met by an army of service people from the Oberoi Hotel and Elegant Journeys, who quickly escort us through customs, collect the overabundance of luggage some of us brought (not naming names here) and whisk us to our hotel. This is our first taste of the royal treatment that will become the signature of our trip.

Drive Like You've Got The Biggest Karma On The Road
Initial India observations: Traffic! Crazy drivers! We are all going to die! Whose suicidal idea was the road trip? It takes a few days to realize that Indian drivers are not the world's worst, they are the best. It is true no one follows the traffic lanes painted on the road (“they are just a suggestion”), which causes total mayhem.

Honk If You're Horny or Indian
“Now I understand the madness of Indian cab drivers in Dubai,” Jani astutely notes. “They learned how to drive in India!” There is the constant ear shattering horn-honking, which terrifies us until we figure out this is a courtesy not an affront, as attested by the many trucks with “Horn Please” painted on the rear bumpers.

I Always Wondered Where The Partridge Family Went
Our guide Harry informs us, “To drive safely in India you need three things: a good horn, some good brakes and good luck.” We add number four: a good driver. Our chauffeur Manoj laughingly agrees. We come to greatly appreciate the benevolence of Indian drivers, who seldom get mad at one another no matter how many times someone cuts in front of them and who gleefully come to the aid of other drivers with breakdowns. Everyone jumps out of their vehicles to help. This also means they leave their trucks blocking the roadway,  but how can you complain when they are coming to the aid of a countryman in need. Thanks to the expertise of Manoj, we not only survive but come to relish the Indian driver’s comical dance of bobbing and weaving in and out of traffic.

Use Your Head In Traffic
India has a wide variety of transportation modes and some are quite stylish. Vying for preeminence on the roadways are brightly decorated lorries jockeying with vintage trucks and over burdened hand carts. These carts are pulled by tractors or a zoo variety of animals: elephants, camels, water buffalo, bulls, horses, donkeys, even dogs  - all being directed by their handler to pull, push or carry bundles of goods to their destination. Plus, people with head bundles don't hesitate to merge with the motorized traffic.

Family Togetherness
Then there are the vehicles used to move people. Motorcycles (most with at least 3 riders on them) weave their way through traffic with enthusiasm that can only be described as a death wish. Bicycles dart and swerve to propel rapidly pedaling passengers safely out of harm’s way. Buses have people stuffed into and hanging out of every available opening, plus perched precariously on the roofs and rear fenders.

A Golf Cart and a Lawn Mower Had a Love Child
Packed auto-rickshaws bring a bright green and yellow flutter to the chaos as they artfully maneuver their passengers through the narrowest openings between vehicles. Our guide said, “I have seen an auto-rickshaw so crowded that one person pushed the gas, another worked the brake, and yet another steered.” Whatever the task at hand, India has more folks to do it.

Katie Foster is a spicy girl who lives in Dubai and wanders around the Middle East. Unlike the famous British Spice Girls, she's not a ho and speaks comprehendible English.


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