Colleen Alsberg, of Fox World Travel, recently went on a trip to India. It was filled with so much adventure, she had to break it into two parts!
It was a long day’s drive, so when I was shown to my room by a gracious young man, I was again, overwhelmed! I actually had a 5 room suite with 4 balconies overlooking the tremendous gardens and pool with the entire city of Jodhpur as my backdrop. To the left I could see the Mehrangarh Fort, hidden ever so slightly in a light haze. Below were the colorful houses that give Jodhpur its “blue city” status. To the right the city sprawled out, dotted with the domes of temples. It was so quiet on our hill overlooking the city, it’s quite evident why this location was chosen for such a grand palace.
In the late afternoon, Vivek took us down the hill to Maharani Textiles & Handicrafts. After walking through a dusty “junk” shop, we continued to an even dustier basement laden with fabric. Until now, I thought I’d only get the hard sell from the street people! This Mushek Jain puts on quite the show. One after another, large scarves, duvets and fabrics were tossed in the air, only to land gently (and I’m sure specifically orchestrated) at our feet. Made for the finest houses in the world (Hermès and the like), sold to us at rock bottom and set prices.
The Taj hosted our dinner that evening and it again was one of my favorites. We dined al fresco on the back patio, the Pillars Restaurant, while the lights of Jodhpur sparkled in the distance. It was a beautiful, candle lit night, warm breezes, delicious food (non-Indian for a change) and good company.
My Most Favorite Day: With a wonderful breakfast to start my day, I should have known that it was destined to be my favorite day of the trip. I dined al fresco at the Pillars again, this time with lovely flute music playing, a handsome dining companion (my new friend Tom from Houston), a handsome waiter in colorful dress and yummy blueberry pancakes! Every attention to detail was noted, right down to the young man walking back and forth on the steps with a really long flagpole, keeping away the pigeons. I imagine those birds could ruin a lovely breakfast!
This morning I put on my adventure shoes as we headed out on a countryside safari. Before we departed, Vivek gathered 500 rupees (or whatever we wanted to donate) from each of us. Our kitty was earmarked for bake goods, cookies and fruit to hand out to the nomads along our route. It’s amazing how much you can buy with only 500 rupees (about $8 USD). After picking up our items at a shop and a street vendor, we continued out of town, looking for children and mothers in need. It was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. The first children to come along were a little shy and didn’t know what to think of our offerings, but eventually accepted with huge smiles. Some were afraid and ran away, most swarmed our bus, grabbing and gathering as fast as we could hand them out the door. The tattered clothes, gaunt faces and poverty is very real, it does exist. But those smiles, now that’s something that will stick with me forever!
On we rode (and rode and rode) to our first stop, a local potter. He was a brilliant artist, crafting pots for us on a stone wheel, balanced on a pyramid-shaped rock, spun not by electricity, but manually. How perfectly balanced that huge potter’s rock had to be to continue to spin long enough for him to craft one item after another. He did it effortlessly and his wares were beautiful. His grandchildren came out to greet us too, looking for gum, but gleefully accepting a box of cookies instead! They were so happily playing that you just wanted to join in all the fun! It’s amazing how much joy young kiddos get out of a paper tube! They escorted us back to our bus, smiling and waving, etching a special memory in my heart.
Now the fun begins! Our next stop was a local farm for a very special opium ceremony! For the sake of research, I had to partake in this traditional tea. It was quite the contraption that our host used to brew the tea, pouring from one side to the other, until the final product was complete. If I remember correctly (bear with me, I was partaking), he said a few chants and then came to each of us individually. We held out our cupped hands as he poured the tea 3 times, and then instructed us to elegantly slurp it out each time! Boom! I’ve had opium!
I don’t recall if it had any unusual effects on any of us, but we were pretty happy the rest of the day! Our host’s little charcoal-eyed grandson came out to hang with us. Man, I just wanted to steal that little cutie away in my carry-on (maybe it was the opium?). Our host was quite the character, showing us how to wrap an incredibly long, colorful turban and wrapping a few of us ladies in a beautiful scarf. There was talk of some new wives, so I skedaddled out of there as soon as the bus turned the corner!
Our final safari stop was to a local rug maker. What a colorful character he was! In near perfect English (which he was very proud of) he showed us his method of weaving beautifully designed rugs. This skill was passed down from many generations and you could see that the method was not all that different from years past. Mostly silk and cotton, they were quite extraordinary. Our host was quite philanthropic as well, giving a portion of his proceeds to the people of his community. He was also very proud to announce that he had a “western” toilet! Now we’re talking…..no more holes in the floor! It was also home to the largest gecko I’ve ever seen! It was the surprise factor that made me scream…..not that I’m afraid of geckos or anything!?!
A late, quick lunch was hosted by Hotel Vivanta by Taj – Hari Mahal. I’m a Pan-Asian food lover so this was a happy break from the Indian food. After a delicious meal, we sped back to the palace for a glorious few hours of down-time. My new friend Gail from the Boston area, and I explored the grounds to take pictures, then we had a quick, private tour of the museum, located the indoor pool (rather subterranean!) and spa, walked through the gardens and followed the pergola to the beautiful pool. The pool boy had to bring us a refreshing drink because it was such a hot day. I don’t remember what it was, but it WAS refreshing and it’s lovely to be doted on!
For dinner, we all gathered in the gorgeous Risala dining room at the palace for another delicious Indian inspired meal. A good night sleep was ahead after a lot of activity, travel and fresh air!
To See the Sea: Oh what a lovely morning it was; a bit of a sleep-in and then another beautiful day to have breakfast outside. There were a lot of miles to cover today, but fortunately we were scheduled to fly most of them.
Before departing Jodhpur, we spent the morning visiting another grand structure, the Mehrangarh Fort. Construction of the fort began in the 15th century, mainly as defensive stronghold, and progressed over a period of 500 years. It sits on a rock, 400 feet above the city of Jodhpur. One of the best preserved forts in India, it is known as the “Citadel of the Sun.” Inside the fort you will find temples, shrines and palaces, changed many times during the eras of different tribes and maharajas. It is amazingly ornate and is now a museum, housing many priceless relics and keeping their treasured history alive. To me it was a photographers dream. Around every corner was a new colorful or architectural experience. When reading about the fort, they described it with this sentence and that’s exactly how I found it! “The abrupt transition from one era to another, as you progress through the buildings, is one feature that makes a visit so remarkable.” Perfection! I could have spent many more hours exploring this extraordinary place!
A very important bit of information I learned at the fort, key to my trip; it is not an elephant saddle, it is a howdah! The howdahs featured in the gallery looked much more comfortable than the flat-mattressed twin bed strapped to my elephant’s back in Jaipur! But you can’t change an elephant’s stride, so really, how comfortable can any howdah be? That’s a fine howdah do! Sorry, you knew I had to go there!!
After some spice purchases and people watching outside the fort, we made our way to the Jodhpur Airport for our flight to Mumbai, via India’s Jet Airways. There’s not much to the airport, departures on one side, arrivals on the other and in the middle, the guy that takes his sweet time bilking money from us for our overweight bags! With only 33 pounds allowed on Jet Airways flight, I was already overweight before I left Wisconsin (34 pounds). I did pretty well with only 4 kilo overweight at 500 Rupee per 2 kilo, so basically 20 dollars to not have to carry on all my extra Indian goodies! I had flown Air India many years ago and didn’t have the best experience, so was a little concerned about another India-based airline. Once onboard this B-737, I found the seats to be comfortable (economy), the service was excellent and they even fed us on our one-hour flight. Those Indian folks, always feeding us! It was quick, smooth and an on-time arrival in Mumbai.
We arrived in the domestic airport in Mumbai and were met by another A&K rep that had porters ready to collect our bags. Before we knew it, we were making our way through another big, crazy city, this one located on the gorgeous Arabian Sea! It was refreshing to see so much water. The weather was spectacular, sunny and the views with all the boats were as colorful as the people.
We were delivered promptly to another amazing hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace. Since it was a long day already, Vivek had our bus driver take us to Fab India and a mall for some shopping. We then had dinner at the hotel in their excellent Indian restaurant, Masala Kraft.
I’m sure you are bored with me telling you how beautiful my rooms were, so I’ll be brief. Yes, another gorgeous 5 room suite! This time, in my living room, I had bowls with as many cashews as I could eat, but that wasn’t even the best part! At about 10:00 pm, I get a knock on the door from a young man with my footbath! To be honest, it freaked my out a bit because I wasn’t expecting it. He asked what temp I wanted the water, then drew the water in a beautiful copper bowl, poured in the jasmine salts, gave me a loofah and a magazine and left. What? No leg massage?!? After that, I plopped into my cloud of a bed and slept like a princess…..
Bombay….aka Mumbai: Mumbai has over twenty million people inhabitants and isn’t even the most populated city in the world. Twenty million people in one city is very hard to fathom….until you go on a city tour! After meeting our local guide, a lovely spirited lady, we dove deep into the traffic and made our way through this very animated city. Mumbai has a very “confusing” history. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to have changed hands quite often and until 1996 was known as Bombay. Let’s just say it started as a fishing village and has long been a major coastal trading port. With that come a variety of unique architecture throughout; traditional Indian, Gothic, Victorian, Greek, Venetian and more. I found the Islamic structures the most fascinating and ornate. The city really grew during the Art-Deco years, so you can see that style in many of the buildings as well.
One of the stops we made was at the Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai’s laundry slum. Much of the city’s laundry is hand washed here, beat against large concrete vats and then hung to dry in the hot sun. Families and businesses have used this service for hundreds of years. This is also a spot where the locals know tourists will be stopping, so they are ready for you with their “made in India” wares. And they were ready for us nutty impulse buying tourists! I have the blue bedazzled elephant tablecloth/wall hanging to prove it!
Mumbai, even though big and crazy, seemed much cleaner to me than other parts of India. From the slums to the very rich areas, we saw much of the city before ending our tour at the former residence of Mahatma Gandhi. Now a museum, this very unassuming bungalow on a side street, was not what I expected. I’m not sure I ever thought about where he lived, but this place was very residential, almost Wauwatosa-like! Safe to say though, I did not get any vibes of Gandhi grilling out in the backyard, cracking a Kingfisher with the neighbors. Inside was a library where I found the letters he wrote to Roosevelt and Hitler the most interesting. On the other floors were his living quarters, very simplistic and quite uncomfortable-looking, lots of memorabilia, and several rooms full of dioramas depicting his entire life.
Maybe it was just me, but when we got off the bus and walked to the house, it seemed like all chaos subsided. There was no noise, no cars, just a peaceful little street. Peaceful, like the man and the India he hoped for.
We ended our tour learning a little more about our guide’s personal life. She told us that arranged marriages are still prevalent in India, but hers was not. SHE got to choose! Smart lady!
Back at the hotel, we had a little time to relax before our final dinner together; Indian food of course. It was a nice night to have a last chat together as a group.
And then all of a sudden it was over. The final morning was an early rising and quick breakfast at the hotel. After our sad good-byes to Vivek at the Mumbai Domestic Airport, we continued to the new Mumbai International Airport. Staff from A & K took care of us through check-in and then we were on our own to get to the Business Class Lounge and do our final India gift buying. Off we go….bound for a quick layover in Dubai and back to the continent in New York City.
In Conclusion: When you’ve been in the travel industry a long time, I think you tend to get a little jaded with some of the trips you take. The excitement is not like it used to be. But then there are those places that renew that energy and give you back your faith in adventure. Isn’t it wonderful to be excited, nervous, have a sense of the unknown and mostly, get the “Wow, I can’t believe I’m here!” feeling that new destinations give you!
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