Birthday Trip -- to India!
Each year, we throw a wad of frequent flier miles at the map and run away for a few days.
Actually the process is much more defined than that. We study, dream, and squint at that map until something comes into focus. We think about history, cultures, and new experiences. It is more than just a "bucket-list". It is about making fantasies into real adventures. Then we go shopping for flights.
India is about as far from Oregon as you can go before you start coming back again. In fact, the clock is eleven-and-a-half hours different from home. Never did figure out the half part. But the history and culture is remarkable. And this year, Susie and I were celebrating our 25th anniversary. I wanted to take her to the Taj Mahal.
So we decided to go to India. We landed in Delhi after 36 hours of traveling. We'd left early in our morning and arrived there a day later in their morning. A driver was waiting with a sign, flowers, and a smile.
Delhi is a bustling metropolis, which successfully combines both ancient and modern aspects of Indian culture. The division between the old, walled city, and what is known as New Delhi marks a division of lifestyles. The walled city retains its past traditions with forts, monuments, and tombs, while the new city gleams with skyscrapers, modern hotels, and call-centers that strive to match the pace of the 21st century.
The walled city dates to the seventeenth century. We began our adventure, aptly, at the Red Fort, center of the Mughal Empire.
Within the massive sandstone walls, we found throne rooms, palaces, apartments, a mosque, and elaborate gardens. The first time I visited the Forbidden City in Beijing, I was in awe of its grandeur and scope. Now I had found a structure to rival it!
We then visited the Raj Ghat, a solemn memorial erected on the site where Mahatama Gandhi was cremated. Children gathered in the gardens and were pleased to meet and greet visitors from far away.
We toured the modern parliament and rode a rickshaw through the crowded Shahjahanabad marketplace and bazaar.
Later, we came to Humayun's Tomb - a forerunner to the Taj Mahal built by the widow of this 16th century king. We then traveled to Qutab Minar, a soaring 238-foot tower from the 12th century. The tower has five distinct stories, each with a projecting balcony. At its base is the Quwwat-Ul Islam Mosque, the first to be built in India.
On our third day, we drove to Agra. En route, we stopped at Sikandra to visit the tomb of Akbar the Great. The tomb is a fusion of Hindu and Muslim art and architecture reflecting the spirit of the emperor entombed there. Sikandra was the first Mughal building to use the four-minaret style. We were asked to remove or cover our shoes in respect.
Agra is the last capitol of the Mughal Empire. It boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites -- the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, the Agra Red Fort, and the Taj Mahal.
Our hotel was the Moorish styled Oberoi Amarvilas, a lavish but comfortable resort with impeccable service. There are terraced lawns, fountains, and reflecting pools. At each turn, you are greeted - by name and with a smile. But more memorable is the view from each room. The hotel is mere thousand feet from the Taj Mahal.
We had planned to walk, but our guide Anita arranged a ride to the monument gates. The first archway framed the white marble beyond. We passed through the gate and then stopped to absorb this special moment.
Crowds were light and we had planned a "sunset visit". At one point we stopped for a traditional, light-hearted photo...
When the sun rose the next day, mist filled the area and nothing more could be seen.
Within site of the Taj was another enormous palace structure. As large as the Red Fort in Delhi, the Agra Fort was built by Akbar the Great in the 16th Century. And like the Red Fort, it too contained governmental buildings, formal audience halls, and private residences. Ironically, Shah Jahan was imprisoned there by his son. We visited his royal apartments and searched for the Taj Mahal in the fog along the riverbank.
On our fourth day, we departed Agra on a four-hour drive, bound for Jaipur. Just outside Agra, we stopped at the abandoned Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri. We found a ghostly masterpiece of Muslim, Hindu, and Jain architecture, built by Akbar the Great. We were told he had planned to relocate his capitol here. But a shortage of water was explained as a reason the amazing city was abandoned.
Jaipur is the capital city of Rajasthan. It is also called the "Pink City". In 1905, all of the houses in the old quarter were painted pink to honor the visiting Prince of Whales.
For our final day of touring, we rose early and headed for the Amber Fort. This was another palace complex perched high on the rugged hills overlooking the city. To reach the gate, we rode an elephant up the long roadway.
Susan quizzed our guide Anita long and hard abut the elephants treatment and work schedules before agreeing to the ride. They looked healthy and were managed caringly. We were told they only worked morning shifts and were limited to three tips - I mean trips a day.
As we stood in line, hawkers relentlessly offered us postcards, umbrellas, memory-cards, and trinkets. I finally reached into my bag and pulled out the mosque socks we had been issued the day before. "Just one-thousand rupees for a pair!" "Six hundred for just one!!"
Hawkers were bewildered by the turn-around. Fellow tourists were amused. Susan rolled her wifely eyes, having seen it all before....
The venue in India was constantly changing. But a constant was the human scene that confronted us at every turn. On the street, we saw camels, rickshaws, cattle and trucks. People were everywhere!
We met wedding parties and workers in bright colors. I saw women excavating gravel from a roadside carrying baskets of dirt away balanced on their head. There were snake charmers and muses.
Of our three longer drives, first to Agra, then Jaipur, then back to Dehli, the roads were an undulating mosh-pit of trucks, cars, scooters, and people. It seemed there were no traffic rules at all except to go forward and hit the horn. Our driver, Sandtosh, was magnificent!
Our flight home began at 3 am. We came from Delhi, to Frankfurt, on to San Francisco, and then finally and wearily to Oregon. Susie carried the flowers the entire way...
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