It’s been two weeks since we arrived in India and I have to say it has exceeded my expectations in every way. I haven’t yet been pinched, prodded or grabbed (despite warnings from friends and online postings) and haven’t seen much that would make me recoil in horror or make me want to head for home.
To the contrary. Everyone we’ve met has been warm, gentle and endearing. From the shopkeeper in Leh who left his store to walk us two blocks to find an adapter to the shoestore owner in Delhi who glued my sandal together and refused to take any money to Pushp and Vinita, our Airbnb hosts in Delhi, who draped marigold garlands around our necks when we arrived and packed food for our early morning flights to Ladakh when we departed.
As for experiences, we’ve had them by the dozen. Here are some of them:
• The best Oliver Twist experience: In Agra, we were befriended by an auto rickshaw (tuktuk) driver, Salim, and his 15-year-old protege, Viki. With his impeccable English, mischievous smile and engaging personality, Viki was our guide for a day, taking us to a jeweller to get my necklace fixed, a pharmacist for Skip to buy contact lens solution and the gorgeous Akhbar’s Tomb. He also took us to “Indiana” restaurant for lunch after we requested a “good, clean and healthy Indian meal”. Needless to say, lunch for us (and them) came to a whopping $50. Yes, we were taken for a ride but it was worth it to see little Viki tucking into a plate of chicken tikka and leaning against me as I showed him photos of our trip.
• The best Fawlty Towers experience: Breakfast this morning in Jaipur turned into a hysterical session when the waiter decided we all wanted omelettes (even though only Skip had ordered one) and kept dropping them, one by one, onto my plate as well as on the plates of the Italian family next to us.
• The best vendor experience : The snake charmer in Jaipur yesterday was less than charming when he snarled at me for snapping his photo and demanded money (which I didn’t provide). Shopkeepers, however, were happy to chase us down the street to “please look in my shop” and implore us to buy something or “you will break my heart. And I have a small heart”.
• The most unusual hygiene experience: When in a little town outside Leh, I asked a shopkeeper where to find the toilet only to discover the “open toilet” was not a public loo at all but a large field where you’re expected to do your business.
• The most fascinating psychic experience: Our driver, Anu, took us to visit “guruji” (an Indian with psychic powers who worked in a jewellery shop with his cousins). He proceeded to tell me a number of things that amazed me, including that I’d be somewhere else (yes), that we’d be going there next February (yes) and that I would be doing work to help other people.
• The most overwhelming travel experience: Our overnight train from Varanasi to Agra is one of the most intense travel experiences that stands out in my mind (other than the drive up the mountain in Leh). Not only were there more people at the entrance to the station than I have ever seen in one place in my life, forcing us to literally shove our way into the building, but there were no announcements on the train when it stopped. If it weren’t for Skip shaking me awake at 5:45am and telling me we were IN Agra, I may have slept all the way to Pakistan.
• The most bizarre sighting: Without a doubt it was tonight in Pushkar. A reed-thin man, wrapped in white cloth with a cast on his broken arm and thick matted hair down to his waist played a pair of cymbals while whirling around with a blue plastic bucket tied to the end of his hair. Not sure if he was doing a spiritual movement or just had his boat tied a few feet short of the pier.
• The best food experience: We haven’t had a bad one yet. Though I haven’t had Delhi Belly, I did get a touch of “Ladakh Stomach” on our way to sewage-infested Varanasi so Skip and I decided to go without meals for the entire time we were there! Our diet consisted of nan, soda water, crackers and biscuits (and a muffin and oatmeal from a western cafe). So, while it may not have been a gourmet experience, our favourite meal was on our arrival in Agra. After the overnight train journey (with more crackers) and a dawn visit to the Taj Majal, we discovered Cafe Coffee Day. A cappuccino and spinach sandwich at 9am never tasted so good!