Through my work for the Unitarian Universalist Association, I get to travel frequently around the country to meet with generous supporters of the Association. This fall, I was given a unique opportunity to travel to India to see schools being built in the Khasi Hills, where there is an indigenous Unitarian population, made possible by donations through the Association. Patrick obviously would have loved to join me, but his own work responsibilities kept him in Boston.
My trip began with a tour of the Golden Triangle before heading further east to the Khasi Hills. The morning after my arrival in Delhi, I took a two hour train to Agra, which was a piece of cake after spending 14 hours on a plane the day before. The trains are comfortable and even serve hot breakfast, but make sure to reserve a seat in an air conditioned car. Agra is known as the city of monuments, the crown jewel of course being the Taj Mahal. This magnificent mausoleum was built by Shah Jahan in honor of his favorite wife, and the detailing is truly impressive; seemingly painted characters are actually perfectly inlayed marble in marble. The next stop was the Red Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son. From his room you can see a beautiful view of the Taj. It is so sad to think of him spending the last years of his life longing for freedom and within sight of his cherished memorial.
It is hard to avoid crowds of tourists when in the Golden Triangle but our next stop, the Baby Taj, was a surprising escape. Don't be fooled by the nickname: the only relation to the Taj Mahal is an architectural resemblance. It is much smaller but very beautiful, and the quiet lawn is dotted with dozens of monkeys out to play.
While in Agra I stayed at the Grand Imperial Hotel, a converted palace with plenty of thoughtful details and a lovely courtyard that is visited by a variety of birds and monkeys. The restaurant is also fantastic and serves the best kulfi (Indian ice cream made of goat's milk, pistachios and spices) that I had on the trip.
The next stop on the tour was Jaipur, about a five hour drive from Agra. My favorite Golden Triangle site was actually a stop along this drive: Fatehpur Sikri. It is a sprawling palace built by Emperor Akbar, who was so dedicated to his interfaith belief system that his three wives all came from different religious traditions: one Hindu, one Muslim and one Christian. Each wife had her own living and eating area, but these all reflected elements and symbols from the others' faiths. A definite must see!
Jaipur is known as the "Pink City" for the terra cotta colored edifices that line its streets. In the old city it is mandatory that buildings be painted to conform with the city's moniker. Jaipur is not only known for the color of it's buildings but also for the grandness of them. Notable of the cities many palaces are The Palace of the Lake and Palace of the Winds, both brief stops. The former is built in the middle of a lake and not open to visitors, and the latter is actually simply a facade. Open to visitors is Jaipur City Palace, which is now a collection of museums and a center for local artisans. But the main attraction is Amber Fort built high on the hills. One can take an elephant ride up to the top which is a major thrill and highly recommended, but make sure to tip your driver to avoid them encouraging elephant mischief as you try to dismount! My favorite thing about Amber Fort was the Kali Temple located inside its walls. I was fortunate enough to be visiting during the festival that honors the Hindu goddess Kali, and so there was much ado and many worshipers visiting on that day.
Another interesting site in Jaipur is Jantar Mantar, which is an observatory filled with tools to measure time and make astrological predictions. The world's largest sundial is located here, which can unbelievably tell time within a two second margin of error.
Accommodations in Jaipur were at the Alsisar Haveli. Located right off of a busy street, you are shocked to find this quiet oasis down a driveway between run-down storefronts. A haveli is essentially an Indian mansion, and each room in this one was unique, comfortable, and tastefully decorated.
Unfortunately I was not able to spend time in the third corner of the Golden Triangle, Delhi, due to the time constraints of this work trip. I was fortunate enough to have a guide and
driver while touring the sites above and I would highly recommended the same for anyone else for several reasons. First, driving is crazy in India, and I say that as someone who can navigate through Boston traffic no problem. I cannot imagine even attempting to drive there. Secondly, written narratives at tourist attractions are practically nonexistant. It would be very difficult to understand what you are seeing without a guide. Most importantly, India is really another world. As someone who has done a good deal of foreign traveling, I still found it very difficult to get around without local guidance or direction. It is very inexpensive to hire a guide, and almost all travelers that I saw--from backpackers to affluent tour groups--had a guide with them.
After days of sightseeing it was time to get down to business. I flew to Guwahati for the work portion of my trip and then drove another three hours on a very bumpy road to get to Shillong, the main hub of the Khasi Hills. Visiting Indian villages is a drastically different experience from touring the big cities of the Golden Triangle. In both, white skin and western clothes immediately sets one apart. In Agra and Jaipur, this marks a person as someone with money, and I was swarmed by beggars and hawkers outside every attraction. This made it very hard to be a visitor, and deeply sad in many ways. In the villages I was seen more as alien. Kids would point at me and whisper to their parents, while some warmed to me and would giggle when I waved.
The people in the Khasi Hills were welcoming, gracious, and generous. I was visiting a school built by donations from the West, and the students prepared songs and dances to welcome us. The presented us with gifts upon gifts--traditional Khasi necklaces, beautiful shawls, and handwoven sieves and bowls. It was a special experience to spend time in such a place, so many worlds apart from my home.
It took me almost 36 hours straight of travel time to return to Boston at the end of the trip; I was exhausted and glad to be back. India is an amazing, beautiful, fascinating, and also heartbreaking place. I have never before felt so far away from home.