Cape Codders on Planet India


Rowing down the River Ganges at dawn while a million Hindus wash away their imagined sins
and grieving families cremate their dead is easily one of our planet's most memorable experiences.
Click on the river above to see the scene on the other shore with worshippers bathing at a gat.

The Anchovy of Travel

by Pat & Walter Brooks

Life should not be measured by how many breaths you take, but by how many things take your breath away.

India took our breath away several times each day.

A traveler once said that India was like an anchovy - you either love it or hate it.

 
Click photos to enlarge
 
Click map to see the country
 
Lufthansa seat monitor tracked us as we flew over Iraq and Iran. Click to see Pat on the beach in Goa.
 
The majestic Taj. Click the thumbnail to see the same scene from our room.
 

Men (only) washing clothes at Dhobi Ghat. Click to see the whole, wild scene

 A local fishing boat.
Local fishing boat. Click to see a colorfful river scene.
 Elephanta Island train.

Elephanta Island train.

Temple carved from live rock
 
Goats enjoy the island too
 
Men shave & bath at rite which
 

honors ancestors

 
Aftershave
 
Munbai market

 

We both love anchovies.

Still, India is half way around the world, and when we first planned a visit a decade ago there was that nastiness in the Kashmir, a region in the north which is now quieter than North Ireland, so last month we booked Business Class seats on Lufthansa for the 24 hour flight to "Planet India".

If that seems a little excessive to you, keep in mind the long flight and what it costs you to get there only to arrive weary and exhausted instead of rested and stuffed with good Indian food.

And national carriers like Lufthansa still offer the kind of service and attention to detail which are only distant memories for travelers flying American's domestic airlines. In Business Class the seats become nearly as horiziontal as a bed. Our family physician also prescribed a mild sleeping pill to ensure a few hours of uninterrupted slumber aloft.

We also booked our hotel to allow an extra day at the start to decompress and get ready for India.

A room with a view in Mumbai

Most travelers elect to arrive in New Delhi, the nation's capital. We think that's a mistake and believe that people should go to Delhi to see monuments but go to Mumbai, Varanasi and Agra to see India.

The Taj as seen from the Mumbai Harbor at night
The Taj Palace in Mumbai looms over the harbor like a regal presence. Below is the scene Thanksgiving '08.
The scene on Thanksgiving morning, 2008

Mumbai (you knew it as Bombay) on the Arabian Sea is 16 million people and the site of one of my favorites hotels in the entire world, the original Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. This caravansary offers more class and elegance than any Ritz on earth, and it reeks with history.

Better yet, it sits at the entrance portal of this colonial city overlooking the Victorian era Triumphal Arch where visiting Royals disembarked during The Raj.

The level of service in India generally is outstanding, astonishing to travelers only used to Europe and the Americas, but the Taj Mahal in Mumbai ups the level even further and makes a memorable first impression. The "old" section of this hotel has the best views, click on the thumbnails on the right to see what we mean.

When we first arrived and looked down at the tumultuous street scene from our suite in the Heritage Wing of the Taj Mahal Palace (click on the view on the right), we wanted to stay there staring down all day, but the rest of Mumbai beckoned.

Among the unworldly sights in this vibrant city that never sleeps is the outdoor laundry where over five thousand men (only) pound clothes clean. Then they deliver them back to their clients.

What to see & do in Mumbai

We spent three days in Mumbai and could easily have stayed longer. The things we most enjoyed seeing were the Elephanta Island Caves. The hour-long trip aboard one of the boats shown on the right give you a chance to view the city's skyline from the water. The island is an UNESCO World Heritage site. The caves have been dug into the mountain to form a huge Shiva temple.

Marine Drive along the harbor front is the best way to discover Mumbai. This winding stretch of road with tall buildings on one side and Arabian Sea on the other extends from Nariman Point to Malabar Hills. Due to its curved shape and many street lights, it is called the Queen's Necklace. Marine Drive is also the main thoroughfare linking the Malabar Hills to the southernmost points of the city.

Presently functioning as a Gandhi memorial, Mani Bhawan is an important places to visit as well. It used to be the Mumbai residence of Mahatma Gandhi. We recommend you use a local guide - the charge is small by our standards - and let them take you to the bazaars, markets, temples and other attractions. We used  Trav Buzz and were very pleased with the result. Their toll-free number is 877-Go-India.

At every step of our three weeks in India, the TravBuzz driver and guide were awaiting us. If "seamless" travel appeals to you, this makes for a pleasant experience in a strange land.

An Island of Prosperity amid a Sea of Squalor

We don't wish to mislead you into thinking that travel here may not shock you at times. India is a very poor country for the most part, and the poverty may disturb visitors who are unprepared for it. But this is how most of the rest of the world lives, and it's instructive for Americans to see it first hand.

And at least here, the natives are not only friendly, they are loving and among the earth's most polite and helpful, and yes, happy.

Mumbai is an enigmatic city. Originally it was a cluster of seven islands inhabited by Koli fishermen who lived on the shores of the Arabian Sea and worshiped Mumbadevi, which gave the city its name. It's a city which never sleeps and is the economic capital of India. It's a city of suburban trains, entrepreneurs, Bollywood, skyscrapers, restaurants, clubs and pubs, a city of dreams, of horse races and cricket, and a place full of contradictions.

In other words, one of the great cities on this planet.

 
After 150+ countries, the River Ganges was our most memorable moment.

On the Beach 

In this second installment we will hop in the new luxury train, the Deccan Odyssey, called the new "Palace on Wheels", which leaves Mumbai once a week and visits a huge hunk of Maharashtra including Goa, the Elora and Ajunta Caves and some world class beaches.

A Cape Codder on The Ganges

In this final chapter we will visit the heart of India, Varanasi, and the row down the River Ganges. Then we end our trip at the Taj Mahal and a visit to what may be the most luxurious hotel on earth, the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra followed by a final few days in Jaipur. As the old comic Jimmy Durante said, "you ain't seen nuthin' yet!"

India Explained

  • Over one billion people live in this sub-continent which is slightly more than one-third the size of the United States. Click on the small map on the right to see the entire country.
  • English is the most important language for national, political, and commerce and will serve American visitors well, but Hindi is the national language and primary tongue of 30% of the people. There are additionally 14 other official languages - Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Kashmiri, Sindhi, and Sanskrit.
  • While 80% are Hindu and worship in the countless local temples, there also 12% Muslim, 2% Christian, 2% Sikh, other groups including Buddhist, Jain, Parsi totaling about 3%.
  • The remarkable tolerance of this society is evidenced by the facts that the current Chief of State is Abdul Kalam, a Muslim. India is one of the oldest civilizations in the world dating back at least 5,000 years. Aryan tribes from the northwest invaded about 1500 B.C.; their merger with the earlier inhabitants created the classical Indian culture. Arab incursions starting in the 8th century and Turkish in the 12th were followed by European traders, beginning in the late 15th century. By the 19th century, Britain had assumed political control of virtually all Indian lands.
  • Nonviolent resistance to British colonialism under Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru led to independence in 1947. The subcontinent was divided into the secular state of India and the smaller Muslim state of Pakistan. A third war between the two countries in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming the separate nation of Bangladesh. Fundamental concerns in India include the ongoing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, massive overpopulation, environmental degradation, extensive poverty, and ethnic and religious strife, all this despite impressive gains in economic investment and output.
  • Among India's natural problems are droughts, flash floods, as well as widespread and destructive flooding from monsoonal rains, severe thunderstorms and earthquakes.  


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