Category Archives: travel in India

Travelling India in Luxury… and Out

In 1998, I visited India twice. The first trip, around May I think, was to fulfill a promise made in 1996 to Woodstock School, that when they got Internet access I would come and help train the staff in using the Internet. Which I did, and it was both fun and funny, but that’s another story.

The second trip was almost accidental. I was at the Adaptec offices in California, on one of my usual summer visits, when the subject of the HP Asia trip came up in a staff meeting. Hewlett-Packard planned a six-week trip of Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, a marketing road show for resellers and distributors throughout the area. They wanted someone from Adaptec along to talk about our software, which was bundled with their CD recorders. No one wanted to do the entire trip, so we discussed how to divvy it up. There were immediate volunteers for Australia/NZ and east Asia. India was also on the itinerary.

“I’m probably the only one who has all the shots for India,” I said.


There were no other takers, so India was mine.

The first half of the trip I spent in the lap of luxury. In Delhi I stayed on the Executive floor of the Taj Mahal hotel, one of the world’s finest. With HP’s corporate discount it wasn’t, by US corporate standards, even terribly expensive (about $175 a night) and I wasn’t paying for it, anyway. The service was the best I’ve had at any hotel, ever: competent, efficient, and always there, without being intrusive. Internet access from anywhere in India wasn’t great in those days, so downloading dozens of email messages per day was quite a chore, but, with the help of a very smart hotel technician, we eventually got it done. She was startled when I told her how valuable her skills were, but I’m sure that by now she has figured it out.

From Delhi I flew to Mumbai (Bombay), then Chennai (Madras). I was one of three or four speakers at each stop. The others had prepared PowerPoint presentations about various aspects of HP technology; I did off-the-cuff demonstrations of our CD recording software. The audiences seemed to enjoy my ad-libbing more than the canned presentations, even though those included lots of multimedia bells and whistles.

While drinking tea after the presentations, I would chat with the resellers and distis. One man kindly asked if this was my first visit to India, did I intend to visit the Taj Mahal etc. etc. I explained my long history with India, including four years at Woodstock School, a study abroad year, and a degree in Asian Studies and languages. “You’re more Indian than I am!” he exclaimed. A women in Delhi told me that her own kids didn’t speak Hindi fluently; they spoke English at home and school, were studying French as a second language, and only spoke Hindi with the servants, “So they speak it very badly.”

From Chennai I flew back to Delhi, then took the train and a taxi up to Mussoorie for a visit to Woodstock. From the lap of luxury to the lap of… well, not luxury. I traded my snappy business suit and heels for jeans and hiking boots. It was unseasonably raining most of the time I was there, and I was staying with friends at the top of the hill, so by the time I got home from school each evening I was soaked to the knees (sometimes higher), and the air was too damp for anything to dry just by hanging. (Clothes dryer? Are you kidding?) I put my jeans on top of the woodburning stove to dry, and accidentally scorched them.

When my week was up, I took a taxi back down the hill to catch my train. It was raining harder than ever. We drove over a few minor landslides, and probably just missed getting stuck behind a major one. As we bumped along, I amused myself pondering the contrasts of my two weeks in India, and the amazing contradictions and contrasts you can see every day, anyplace, in that country.

Benares: The Distilled Essence of India

I spent the academic year 1985-86 in Benares, India’s holy city on the Ganges, on the University of Wisconsin’s study abroad program. I was the only one of the group of twelve students who had previously been to India, but I was wrong in thinking that that prepared me for Benares. Benares is the concentrated essence of India: teeming, filthy, intense. I was overwhelmed, and to this day I’m a bit surprised that I survived it; I used to run away to Allahabad to visit friends, drink Scotch, and watch videos.

Yet there was great beauty in Benares, beyond the standard boat trips on the Ganges and views of the temples and ghats.

One of our first evenings in Benares, some teammates and I decided to explore. We got lost almost immediately, and were a bit frightened, as well as beseiged by hawkers wanting us to look at this and that shop of tourist goods (they didn’t know we were poor students). We decided to go into a silk shop, to get everyone else off our backs for a while. This was the ground floor of a home made of whitewashed concrete, with wooden double doors and window frames painted blue or green. We took off our shoes and were ushered into the sales area, where the floor was completely covered by a white mattress, with white pillows to lean on. We were given hot, sweet, milky tea. Then the lights went out – one of Benares’ numerous power cuts. But kerosene lanterns were brought, and by their flaring golden light the shopkeeper began displaying his wares.

Benares is famous for its silks, richly colored and brocaded, with gold or silver borders. He flung out silk scarves so that they exploded into our laps like a fireworks display: magenta, scarlet, royal blue, parrot green – color after color, pattern after pattern. Scarves of all different sizes, then cushion covers and shawls. Had we been Indian women, we would have seen saris as well, or probably first. (Towards the end of my stay I did buy a Banarsi silk sari, to wear to a friend’s wedding; it took weeks to track down exactly the right shade of peacock blue, with a silver and black border. I only wore it the once, but I still have it.)

We didn’t buy anything that night, but the shopkeeper didn’t seem to mind, nor to feel that he’d wasted tea on us. We praised his silks as extravagantly as they deserved, and thanked him profusely, and he was very kind. Eventually we got away and found our way home. After that, I wasn’t so nervous about exploring Benares. People were usually pleasant; it helped that I spoke Hindi fluently.

I loved the gallis: the old, narrow, twisty streets, where the considerable flow of human, bicycle, and scooter traffic could be stopped dead by a cow suddenly deciding to have a lie-down. A galli is only about as wide as your outstretched arms can reach, but it’s as crowded as 5th Avenue, and similarly lined with shops. Except that these shops are reached by climbing up a few wooden steps, so that when you’re in the shop you look out and slightly down onto the crowd. There’s usually no glass window, so you can hear and smell the traffic as well as see it. It’s like having a ringside seat at the circus.

My favorite was the bangle shop, selling traditional glass bangles in thousands of colors and patterns. I visited so often that the bangle-wallah and I became friends. He was delighted that I would eat paan and drink lassi or tea. Paan is betel nut, served minced with lime (calcium) paste and spices, folded up in a fresh green paan leaf. You pop the whole thing into your mouth and chew it. I always had mitha (sweet) paan, without tobacco. Paan is supposed to have a mildly stimulating effect, but I never noticed it, perhaps because I was already so stimulated by my surroundings. It has an astringent flavor, and produces quantities of brick red saliva that you have to spit into the street (hence the red splashes you see everywhere in India). Lassi is a yogurt drink that can be sweet or salted, very refreshing in hot weather. (Yes, I probably picked up lots of parasites this way; hot tea is a lot safer.)

The bangle-wallah and I would sit for hours, chatting and watching the tourists. He found it hilarious that adult male Americans would wear shorts in public: “In India, only boys wear shorts!” Buying bangles was almost an afterthought; I chose them carefully to match the colors of my salwar-kameez (pants and tunic) outfits. The walls of the shop were lined with horizontal wooden rods, each covered from end to end in bangles: plain glass, mirror glass, cut glass, worked glass, twisted glass, glass with gold or silver accents… You wear at least a dozen per arm, and they tinkle delightfully as you move and they gently clash together. Yes, in the end they all break – then you just get more!

I had so many bangles that I bought my own wooden rod, which I propped between a big tin trunk and a shelf in my room. One of my going away to Benares presents had been a rich lanolin soap in the shape of Alice’s Cheshire Cat; I kept it on the shelf when I wasn’t bathing. One night I heard my bangles tinkling on their rod. I snapped on the light, and saw a scurry and a whisk as a rat ran out of sight. He had climbed up the trunk and then run across the bangles to gnaw on the soap; I guess lanolin tastes good to a rat. So the rat was eating the Cat.

Nostalgia link: musicians from my Benares days

India, 2002

Nov 12 – arrival in Delhi, 1:30 am

After the intense disappointment of not being able to attend my class‘ 20th anniversary reunion in Mussoorie last year, I wanted this trip so badly that at every step of the way I feared something would to prevent it. I was afraid I would be refused a visa (though there was no reason I should be), some major terrorist thing would happen, or that for some unfathomable reason I’d be refused entry at the airport. So, when I finally passed the immigration counter, I was light-headed with relief, and deeply happy.

I was met at the airport by my very reliable travel agency, Uday Travels. In India, especially if you’re a woman travelling alone, you need a good agent there on the ground. For each of my trips, I arranged in advance by email to be met at the airport by a car and agent, and most of my in-country travel was also arranged by them.

We drove from Delhi airport to Gurgaon, where I’d be staying with a classmate and his family. The traffic heading into Delhi at that time of night is horrendous: miles of trucks, which are only allowed into the city after midnight, and must pass a security checkpoint. We were fortunately going the other direction, but it was difficult to cross the line of traffic to get into the lane going the other way. India drives on the left, by the way. Roadside dhabas (snack stalls) vie for the truck drivers’ custom with huge, backlit signs and colored neon lights. The names are Hindi, but in roman script: “Manju ka Dhaba.”

My cellphone works! I was able to exchange SMS (text) messages with my husband and daughter. Being able to communicate more easily I hope will reassure them about my safety here.

Gurgaon used to be a small town in the state of Haryana. It is now a suburb of Delhi, calling itself “The Millenium City,” and it’s booming. Many multinationals, anxious to escape the crowding and expense of Delhi, have set up their regional headquarters in Gurgaon. There are gleaming tall buildings equal to any in Europe, some of them architecturally very interesting. It’s after 2 am, but I can see people inside working. Some may be employees of India’s famous call centers, providing English-language customer support worldwide.

There are tall apartment buildings, sometimes clustured together in blocks. My friend and his family live in one of these. The building is very well designed, and completely different from any apartment building I’ve seen before. Rather than a hermetically sealed box, it’s all angles and openings, both horizontal and vertical, so that air and light flow into the interior. The apartment entrances have screen doors as well as solid doors, so you can choose to be open to your neighbors, which creates a feeling of community. Yet it’s far less noisy than our Milan apartment, and at night it’s completely quiet.

My friends’ apartment is on two floors, with an interior staircase and a large exterior terrace two stories high, a wonderful place to sit and chat and enjoy the evening air (even a bit too cool, this time of year).

I arrived there at about 3 a.m., and went to sleep with a smile on my face. I had finally made it back to India.

I slept til 11, and woke up very slowly. I read The Financial Times, a four-page pinkish paper. It included discussions on tax reform, and simple and useful advice for investors. It’s wedding season, so there was a financial guide for new brides, advising them to retain financial independence: “You’re walking on clouds now, but you never know what the future may hold.” Another article touted platinum as “the hottest trend, especially in wedding-related jewelry;” Indian brides are traditionally given expensive jewelry. As the guide for brides pointed out, this becomes the bride’s personal property.

From the balcony I can see a wild green parrot and a squirrel. I suppose the wildlife has not been entirely driven out of Gurgaon yet. There isn’t much of a view, though, due to smoke and haze. Visibility is maybe 2 km.

Milk is delivered in sealed plastic bags that look like little pillows.

Delhi is taking steps to reduce its horrible pollution. The daytime ban on trucks is one such. A new bus and underground metro system, due to launch December 26, should also help. (Delhi has had buses for years, of course, but the new ones will replace the old smokers that contribute so much to the atmosphere.)

In the afternoon I took a car into Delhi to try to find a gemstone to replace the one lost from my engagement ring a few days ago (it wasn’t a diamond, fortunately). I went to a fancy jewely shop in the South Extension market (sort of a mini-mall), and found it full of families buying wedding jewelry. The man told me that the only loose gems they had were diamonds, an investment that didn’t interest me. He said I’d have to go to Old Delhi to find loose gems of any other kind. That’s an expedition that will require some planning.

Another shop in the market sold music and movies, including Video CDs – full length movies on CD in MPEG 1 format – for about $4 each. I bought a few to see how they look on my DVD player at home. The Video CD format is popular throughout Asia; you can buy standalone Video CD players, I assume that the players as well as the discs are cheaper than DVD.

That evening several classmates and friends who happened to be in Delhi (or live there) came for dinner, so we spent many hours talking, reminiscencing, and laughing.


Nov 13 – Delhi to Dehra Dun

The next morning I had to get up early again to catch a train to Dehra Dun. The train wouldn’t even be at the platform til 7, but it was one of those situations where if you leave early you end up sitting around at your destination for an hour, and if you don’t, traffic sets in and you’ll be late. So we sat at the station, and I chatted with the tour guide over sweet, milky tea.

Standards have declined since I last took the Shatabdi Express. It used to have only one class, and my agent didn’t mention that there’s now an Executive Car, which costs twice as much ($14 instead of $7), but is a lot cleaner. So I was in second class, and was not much amused to find small cockroaches crawling around my seat.

The windows are tinted yellow, to reduce summer glare, so the heavy mist outside looks unhealthy (and, this being Delhi, it probably is).

By the time the train reaches the countryside north of Delhi, the sun is up and people are in view, mostly men out shitting in the fields. (Where do the women go?) More palatable views include ponds with birds: white egrets, and something with a gray body, white breast, and black head.

Signs and Portents

Though an ever-increasing proportion of the population speaks English, Indian signage has lost none of its unintentional hilarity. A few examples:

Tress Passers will be prosecuted.

Accident prone area – please drive slow.

Plants on sale – also on rent

“Real fruit se full” This tag line for a brand of ice cream is a weird mix of Hindi and English. The  Hindi word se means “of”. But the construction follows Hindi grammar, so the sentence translates as “Full of real fruit.”

Traffic lights are the standard red-yellow-green; on some, the word “Relax” is painted onto the red light.

“Indian marble – looks Italian!”

more signs

Nov 13 – On the Shatabdi Express to Dehra Dun

Cockroaches aside, the Shatabdi is very civilized. We are first given bottled water and a newspaper, then served an early tea, with a thermos of hot water and two “tea kits,” consisting of a tea bag, sugar, and powdered milk. There is also a packet of two biscuits (cookies, to you Americans). At first I was afraid that this was all the breakfast we would get, and was glad I had brought along my own packet of biscuits. But after the first stop a full breakfast was served. I took the vegetarian option, which proved to be a spicy vegetable mix wrapped in mashed potatoes and fried (croquettes), served with spicy ketchup, and white bread with butter. And more tea.

Dehra Dun

We arrived in Dehra Dun, the end of the line, at about 1 pm. As soon as the train stopped, coolies (porters) swarmed aboard to take the luggage. Their uniform consists of a lunghi (a man’s sarong), red shirt, and turban, with a brass identification/license plate on a string tied to the upper arm or slung diagonally across the chest. One of them put my small bag over his shoulder and balanced my big bag on top of his turban. I ended up paying him 25 rupees (about 50 cents), considerably more than the official rate. Yes, I am a tourist patsy. After years of experiencing India as a poor student and having to haggle over every rupee, nowadays I just can’t be bothered. Especially when one rupee is worth all of 5 cents – so very little to me, but sometimes a lot to the recipient.

My classmate Yuti was on the same train, but we weren’t seated together, so we didn’t meet till we got off the train in Dehra Dun; she had to run down the platform to catch up with me and the fast-moving coolie. Outside we hunted for a taxi. To get from Dehra Dun to Mussoorie, you don’t want to use the official taxi office, because those taxis will only take you as far as Picture Palace bus stand at the beginning of Mussoorie, and you’d have to change to another taxi to get to Woodstock School on the other side of town. The total cost ends up being the same, but to avoid the hassle of changing, we sought out an unofficial Mussoorie taxi. Only official taxis are allowed to park near the station, so actually getting into the taxi was a business. We were taken in a three-wheeled scooter taxi to a little lane nearby, where we waited for our car, which turned out to be a very mini mini-van. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Dehra Dun, then headed on up the hill.

Mussoorie begins at about 6000 ft (2000 meters) up the first range of the foothills of the Himalayas. To get to Woodstock, you have to continue from there on a steep and winding road which runs up the ridge through Landour Bazaar. There are far too many cars nowadays, so there is always a traffic jam at the foot of Mullingar Hill (the steepest and narrowest part of the road); inevitably one or more cars have to back up and find ways to fit around each other; it’s like one of those puzzles where you slide the tiles around to get the numbers in order, and the fit is almost that tight! It can take half an hour to untangle the mess and get everyone on their way. On the whole it’s faster to walk, but not with luggage.

(Back when I was in school, when students arrived for the beginning of the term we would be dropped off at Picture Palace, where coolies would meet us to take our trunks, and we would walk from there to school.)

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