"YES THERE IS A PLACE LIKE THIS ON EARTH--WELCOME TO INDIA!" proclaims the sign, as we stumble zombie-like from the plane into the white marble wonderland of the India Air terminal in -New Delhi, a cavernous room with white marble walls, floor, and ceiling. We have been on the move for over 24 hours so far, and it is only the vision (mirage?) of a comfy bed in a nice hotel that keeps us going.
But where is the welcoming rep who was to meet us? We wend our way through customs, and snake our way through hordes of people holding up signs to welcome this or that person or group. It is with great relief that finally, in the very back of the crowd, our smiling and natty Orient Cruise representative awaits, holding up his welcoming sign.
But where is our luggage? We wait. Luggage drifts by leisurely on the moving ramp one at a time, with 7 to 10 feet between each piece. We wait some more. The polite Indian who is removing other people's luggage as it appears tells us "five more minutes" with a big white smile. We soon learn that five more minutes in India can mean many different things, and an hour later we are still waiting and he is still smoothly reassuring us "five more minutes" despite the fact that no more luggage has appeared for the last 15 minutes. Finally when the ramp itself stops moving he shrugs, bows low, and disappears like a genii in the mist.
Our worst fears were realized--our baggage had not made the transfer! (Our connecting flight from London to Delhi had allowed only a 45 minute layover, and while our SF-London plane had arrived early it had sat on the tarmac 40 minutes waiting for a gate. With only minutes to spare we had desperately snaked our way as fast as we could through, around, and down various rooms, crowds, and hallways to hop on board, barely making our London/Delhi connection. Our flight pattern had taken us across southern Russia and over Tblisi, in sight of the Caucuses. With Mt. Ararat on the right side of the aircraft I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore! Then to our alarm the plane turned south, passing over Kabul. Even my cool husband was quiet and thoughtful, and as we headed over Pakistan Johnny muttered "Here we are on a 757 jam-packed with Hindus, heading out across Pakistan!"
By this time it was 2 a.m. and we had been up over 30 hours. (The British Airways rep gave us 5,000 rupees--$110--to purchase emergency overnight clothing, assuring us that our luggage would be brought to the hotel the next day. Johnny would have none of it--we lived on this windfall for our remaining time in India. Smelly but rich!
The Taj Palace Hotel is luxurious and magnificent! A 5-star white marble palace, way overstaffed with friendly Indians waiting to help you everywhere. Gardens and fountains. Meals buffet style with both American, British, and Indian food--dozens and dozens of serving platters set out with tempting if sometimes inscrutable dishes.
We were met by a smiling Indian hostess who gave each of us a welcome glass of juice and bedecked each of us with a beautiful lei of exotic blooms, saying "Welcome to India!" We finally sank into feather-light beds at 5 a.m., not stirring until noon the next day for our tour of Delhi.
Upon boarding the tour bus reality hit us right between the eyes--guards patrol the walled lovely acres of gardens, with barbed wire on top. The filthy, ramshackle hovels outside were filled with skeletal dirty people, who ran up to our bus and banged without ceasing on the window for food and money. We toured New Delhi first and then Old Delhi, stopping at a Kashmir rug factory to see them being made right before our eyes. Beautiful beyond description, these silk rugs range in size from small runners to large wall- to-wall masterpieces. The designs and jewel-like colors were breathtaking! As these craftsmen work their intricate designs, they "sing" the colors in the pattern they are working on to help them remember the design--much like our children sing the ABC song to learn the alphabet. Then, when the rug is finished, it is "sheared"--it already looked perfect to me and I winced to see them put a knife to it, but when they shave off the top threads it clarifies and brightens the whole shimmering silken beauty even more. Amazing!
After visits to numerous Hindu temples, monuments, etc. and seeing pipal trees where souls reside until ready to inhabit another body, we wended our way back through the ragged pitiful hordes to the Taj, where we packed up for the next day's bus trip to Agra. I never did get used to the gaunt mothers crowding around us for handouts with their listless babies, and small children picking at us and pointing endlessly and hopelessly to their mouths for food. Horror stories abound: our tablemate told us about a mother who actually put a wasp in her baby's eye to make it scream and inspire donations. Cows are everywhere and don't move at all--people bring food to them for good luck. I thought the first cow I saw was a statue, standing so still on the divider in the middle of the street--until its ear flicked!
The long 3-hour bus trip to Agra past endless hovels was broken up by the single existing rest stop--a green oasis featuring nice cold drinks, a book and tourist shop, and a camel to ride. I could not resist doing so. Yes! I rode a camel--a disdainful, superior, spiteful-looking beast who lolled forward and backward with me riding between the humps. Let me tell you an odd thing: it is much higher from the top of it looking down than it is from the bottom looking up. And that's a fact!
Then we heard odd, hypnotic flute music coming from in back of us and when we turned around there was a Hindu with a turban and flute sitting cross-legged on the ground, his music mesmerizing the cobra right in front of him, which was swaying back and forth in the air. I was frozen as well and slowly began swaying with the cobra too. I must have been hypnotized along with the horrid thing because when he offered to put it around my neck I nodded yes, in a daze. And we have the photo to prove it! I felt nothing at all at the time, but had bad dreams that night...I must either be getting crazy, brave, or senile in my old age...or maybe all of the above?
Our hotel in Agra was even larger than the Taj, a modern building only 4 years old. But it is so huge we had trouble time and time again finding our room, usually needing help to do so. This too was walled with barbed wire on top and machine-gun-bearing guards marching up and down. When Johnny took a walk around the lovely gardens he met a man walking a pet monkey on a leash-- and both raised their hands simultaneously to greet him!
Our room had a lovely balcony overlooking the jungle, and before retiring we looked out at a full moon, and then a thunder and lightning rainstorm that followed. We rose before dawn next morning to drink our tea on the balcony, listening to the sounds of dawn in India slowly come alive all around us--birds, monkeys, etc. It was a magical moment we will never forget! A sign on the French door leading to our balcony read "Monkeys around. Keep doors double-locked." Sure enough, as we watched there was a monkey trying to get in another window several floors away!
Next day's tour was to the Taj Mahal--"taj" means crown, "mahal" means palace. A king built it as a monument to his beautiful beloved young wife who died prematurely, and whose last words were "make me a beautiful monument." No words can describe the emotional impact of seeing it-- magnificent beyond what any picture can possibly show. Hundreds of acres surround it, all walled. It is made of a blindingly white shimmering marble of a kind that is 20 times harder than Italian marble. Twenty thousand people worked for 22 years to build it, and it is set on a white marble platform 30 feet high. This white gleaming masterpiece absorbs moonlight, and twice a year at full moon it is open to the public at night, and seems to be floating in the air as the 30 foot base doesn't show up.
I took Johnny's picture with a hotel towel "turban" on his head while he stood in the exact pose and position as Richard Halliburton did in the photo in his classic book "Royal Road to Romance." Johnny had read that book as a young boy, and has never been the same since! It whetted his appetite for travel and adventure which continues unabated. Seeing the Taj Mahal for him was the culmination of a life-long dream!
The next day's tour took us to the marble factory where so many lovely works of art are made, and we watched incredulously as artisans inlaid precious stones in various shapes into a magnificent floral design embedded in the white marble. When we ran our fingers over the top we could not feel a single seam, so well is it crafted!
Here, too, I was able to find saris--I would never have thought I'd want one, but after getting an email from Robin hinting how much she'd love to have one I fell in love with them myself, so now she and I each have a beautiful multi-colored silk sari to wear for just that special occasion!
This is the day we [the United States] have gone to war. Here it is called "Bushfire." Masked faces and silence meet any of our queries to locals about their feelings on the subject, so it isn't discussed. India wants to look out for its own best interest, as do all countries. Its position was well-summarized by The Hindu's editorial: "We have concluded that a nuanced issue-based policy toward the United States would best suit India." In other words--wait and see.
Indian airlines are using all extra aircraft to begin evacuating their 21,000 people from Kuwait and surroundings. And this is also the day we are to fly to Bombay, (now called Mumbai). Can you imagine a worse day to fly?
The air is electric and tense, and security is at an all-time high. We had an escort to the bus, and stone-hard escorts with machine guns waiting for us at the airport--motionless except for flat sliding eyes moving over the restless bands of surly onlookers pacing beyond the fence.
For over two hours in suffocating heat, we were subjected to complete carry-on and body searches, on three separate occasions inside the airport and then once again after walking to the plane on the tarmac prior to mounting the stairs to our waiting 737.
Once inside we taxied out to the runway and waited another hour or so before takeoff, without air conditioning, waiting to be squeezed between those planes flying in from Kuwait evacuating their Indian citizens as quickly as possible. And then another hour while they fixed or replaced a plane part that had broken!
Some of the best computer experts in the world are trained here, products of one of the dozen prestigious ITT Schools (highly coveted by aspiring technology students throughout this country). And the very best computer specialists in these schools consistently come from the southern part of the country, where mathematics continues to be taught the old-fashioned classical way. Robin e-mailed me that the tech support she had just contacted for her new computer was in Bombay!
What incredible relief we felt upon actually, finally boarding the Norwegian Crown after an eternity of crossing town in the hour-long hot sweltering bus ride carrying us from the airport across the city to the docks. It seemed like a shimmering mirage at first! How grateful we were to be ushered to our roomy cabin with bath and huge picture window and air conditioning. Friendly, uniformed staff everywhere.
It turns out a good 30% of the people who stayed at our hotel in Agra came down with what was euphemistically termed "The Agra Two-Step." Several people had fainted on the plane, one actually had to be flown home after spending the night in the ship's infirmary on I.V.'s and not getting better. Most had taken a drink of tap water during the night without thinking, rather than the bottled water we were told to drink. Some merely scrubbed their teeth in the tap water. One poor soul lost over 30 pounds!
We berthed in Mumbai for the night, and after a blissful night's sleep got back on a hot, rickety bus for a city tour. Mumbai has a central laundry service--meaning acres and acres of clotheslines and rocks by the water with many hundreds of Indians furiously beating the clothes clean, hanging them up to dry, and then delivering them back to homes. How they keep them all straight is a mystery to me. Fabulous luxury and Bollywood cinema are here, as well as red double-decker buses and fine restaurants. But it also houses Asia's largest slums and powerful mafia dons. 14.5 million seething masses of people live here, half with no water or electricity.
It was with great relief we finally set sail. So--farewell to India! A land of gifted people, tremendous beauty, unimaginable wealth, and a growing middle class as well as unspeakable poverty. Their life expectancy in 1950 was 26 years, now it's up to about 65 years and there are 21,000,000 babies born in India every year!
By now, we've stopped at a whole variety of small islands such as Goa and Kuda Bandos and Male. Barbeques, swimming and snorkeling on the lovely beaches are the big attractions here, as well as town crafts and spices for sale in the colorful small marketplaces.
Once again we are fortunate to have interesting tablemates--an English couple who are literally building their own home from scratch all by themselves, a lady from Hilton Head who is a reading specialist whose grandchild needs help (guess who can help with that one?); a widow from Chicago and a gentleman who has been cruising for 4 months and who, while not admitting to anything, is probably ready to go home.
The food is great--but not the caliber of the QE2, so it's easier to resist having three desserts. And the service is superb! This truly is a lovely ship in every way, with lots of curving balconies to sit out on and read, or just take a snooze.
The lectures are fabulous! We are on the spice trade route, and it was fascinating to learn that originally nutmeg was only grown on one kind of tree on only one island in the whole world. At one time nutmeg was the costliest item on earth because it was thought to cure the plague. Twenty pounds of nutmeg purchased locally for one penny was resold on the open market for a 6000% markup! It made the Portuguese traders the wealthiest people in the world. Soon the English and Dutch wanted their share, but the Dutch won out because they had invented the buzz saw and could build larger fleets of ships faster. Thus--the Dutch East Indies!
It was also sobering to learn how 4/5 of the world's oxygen comes from the phytoplankton in the ocean, which is the primary reason oil spills are so dangerous--too many more, and it's "Look Mom--no air!"
We're sitting here on our deck chairs, recalling with snickers and smirks when, prior to boarding the Mumbai plane, the surly burly customs officials searching our luggage jumped a mile when they opened the small wicker basket I had purchased and two rubber cobras popped out. Hah!
"GIRAFFES & ZEBRAS & RHINOS, OH MY..."
With great excitement we docked at our first West African port, Richards Bay, and herded onto the waiting bus for the long drive deep into the jungle to the game preserve of Hluhluwe. Our first safari! We stepped down from the bus, picked our way carefully among the grunting warthogs prowling around our feet, and climbed up on the open jeep with the canopied top. (I thought all warthogs are really mean? These were only mildly crabby…
The day was hot enough, but the six of us bounced along the bumpy, winding, single-lane jungle dirt road in relative comfort with the nice breeze coming in the open jeep and the canopy on top to shade us, anticipating seeing The Big Animals with high hopes and great anticipation.
Soon enough we were thrilled to see a group of shy impala gliding among the thick trees, and were then blown away by some rhinos that lumped along nearby, with that challenging "You got a problem?" look in their eyes. And a giraffe! A whole herd of giraffe glided along in front of and back of the jeep, leisurely humping along (they walk like camels), and finally stopping on the road ahead, blocking our path--just like a herd of cows might do back home. Amazing! We didn't see any lions, but the late afternoon group did on their safari group :at dusk a lion stalked and almost caught a baby water buffalo, but the other buffalo in the herd gathered round and drove the lion away. Would have been exciting to see!
Our Zulu guide was terrific and shared many fascinating bits of nature such as: butterflies lay their eggs in milkweed because it's poisonous and other animals won't try to eat the larvae inside...
…And giraffes eat acacia leaves, but only upwind: when the leaves are eaten, the acacia tree gives out a warning scent which is blown to other acacia trees by the wind, and then they turn unpalatable so they won't get eaten. Giraffes cannot put their heads down for more than 45 seconds at a time or they will die; they begin hemorrhaging in their necks and bleed to death.
…And there are dozens of varieties of palm trees, one with huge sausage-like plants hanging down that elephants eat when fermented and get drunk. A herd of drunken, reeling, trumpeting elephants must be frightening to behold!
All too soon we had to call it a day, and on the way back down the twisting, bumpy two-lane path we passed more impala, warthogs, zebras, water buffalo, giraffes' heads peeking high above the brush, hyena, nyala, and rhino.
Our last glimpse before boarding the tour bus that would whisk us back to the ship was of a tiny, wee dung beetle, patiently rolling along a huge turd, trying to get it covered with lots of grass and dirt so it can lay eggs in it.
From the humble little dung beetle to the huge, lumbering rhinoceros, it was indeed a day to remember!
The afternoon's trip was to Zululand, a two-hour bus ride inland from Richards BayThisauthentic Zulu village is not recreated but has been maintained for centuries intact in its pristine form and culture. (Shaka Zulu was the incredible Zulu warrior leader who combined all the myriad Zulu Tribes into a powerful single nation in a ruthless but effective war around 1825.)
We were fortunate to see all aspects of their culture: how they made their round grass-thatched huts, baskets, spears, shields, food, and finally an awesome dance by the village warriors. Very, very impressive! They are ancestor-worshipers, and they bury their dead vertically so the spirit remains intact. In the Zulu language letters are clicked aloud in 15 different ways!
The thing I loved best about them is their natural grace, intelligence, and contentment. They had an aura about them that is difficult to explain, except that it involved great, natural pride without any chip on their shoulder or feeling they had anything to prove. Gracious, dignified, and naturally friendly people.
Well, friendly these days, anyway! At one time they were fierce warriors who had, by hand, crafted the sharpest and most deadly spears known to man. It was fascinating to watch them make these spears; each step seemed so innocent and simple, yet when the thing gets put together, it is as accurate and fearsome as a ground-to-air missile!
The war dance performed by the males with these spears rivaled any sword fight we've ever seen in Shakespeare plays up at Ashland, with blood-curdling shrieks and yells to accompany it. (No, Dorothy, we most certainly were not in Kansas anymore! They served a home-made "milk beer" afterward to those wanting a libation…an ugly, strange-tasting brew that left one with a most peculiar feeling afterward--light-headed, ethereal, and a bit dizzy. (But then again that’s how I’ve felt on this whole trip so far!)
Johnny got carried away by the Zulu culture, and ended up purchasing a Zulu spear (over six feet long) and a hide shield. How in the world are we going to get that thing on the airplane? I can just see us explaining it to security at the check-in point: "Oh, that little thing? That's just a Zulu spear. No problem I'm sure…" Hah! (Ideas, anyone?)
Their round, thatched huts have small openings for doors, which you have to bend over to enter. This is deliberate, in order to put a possible enemy who might try to sneak in and do you harm at a distinct disadvantage…
This is the jungle where the infamous green mamba snake lurks; it's mean, will strike out for no reason, and its poison kills in less than ten seconds…in the old days if someone wanted revenge, he would capture a green mamba, let it loose in their enemy's tent, and as soon as that person stirred or moved, he was dead meat…
Their witch doctors use special cures for ailments, which include powdered bones, beetles, and animals; various potions derived from plants; and shake and throw bones as well to "read" a message by the pattern of how they land…and after Johnny's atrial fibrillation was cured with herbs by the Dalai Llama's personal physician from Tibet, I no longer automatically discount anything like this! He had been told by both his Kaiser cardiologist and the head cardiologist at U.C. Medical Center that there was no cure for chronic atrial fibrillation. As long as he takes the herbs, which are mailed from India in a brown paper bag, he remains free of it, but if he stops it comes back…
When you get to be a senior in the Zulu culture, you smoke marihuana--it is a natural, accepted rite of passage. We watched an old man sit with crossed legs take a deep drag on a pipe with closed eyes and a dreamy smile…they offered it to us as well, but there were no takers in our group. (Stodgy old bunch, weren't we?)
The women make the most beautiful beaded things--from jewelry to the very short skirts they all wear. They are naked on top, and perfectly natural about it. I took a picture of Johnny standing next to his Zulu girlfriend. She looked perfectly at home, but he had a silly smile on his face…
After this outing, on the top deck of the ship, half a dozen nubile young ladies could be seen prancing and cavorting around; they had also been inspired to go topless after seeing this performance.
This was truly an amazing and mind-blowing experience for everyone!
INDIA In India there were no barber shops per se; customers sat in chairs out on the sidewalk by the street and get a shave and a haircut… Gandhi he wrote that he would not hesitate to kill a child to put it out of its misery if it was suffering terribly from a terminal illness…Billboard in Goa, India: "Shed hate, not blood."
THE ISLANDS Those indecent Coco de Mer palm trees with large, 24” fruit resembling male and female anatomy (I still think they should all be wearing underpants) only grow on one island in the whole world, Praslin Island in the Saychelles, and their coconuts are ground up and sold to the Chinese as aphrodisiacs…In an island marketplace was a booth with a sign "Exotic Aphrodisiacs," featuring lotus seeds as among the most potent…When Johnny bought his Zulu spear and shield, the vendor also offered to sell him a "ceremonial condom" made of woven grass…(he declined. Ouch!)
It's amazing to think of how clever and highly-skilled the Pacific Islanders were 3,000 years ago-they navigated the oceans without having instruments, paper and pencil (or any written language), food, or maps! They memorized what information could be passed along, and used 32 different stars for accurate reckoning. They sailed in small catamarans with minimal shelter and no food packed beforehand. At first they tried building ships out of ebony, because it was such a common, strong wood. But ebony is so heavy the ships immediately sank.
There is one last Pacific Islander navigator still living who is in his '50's now, and when he dies all that old knowledge of how to navigate without maps, paper & pencil, food, etc. will die with him…Most of these Islanders read English, speak French, and read and speak Creole, their universal language.…
In 1595 an astronomer named Plancikus discovered a variety of new stars and got a copyright on their position. This copyright was voided by the courts, but it's interesting that intellectual property rights were an issue even way back then! (I wonder how current copyrights on human genomes will hold up?)
AFRICA Africans make among the most beautiful sculptures I've ever seen, tending toward the abstract, very powerful and almost overwhelming. Somewhat reminiscent of Michelangelo's lesser-known and abstract Madonna and Child. And all of these talented sculptors come from one place: Zimbabwe!
CAPE TOWN We had hired a private guide for two days to show us the stunning Dutch Cape architecture Johnny so loves to see in their Winelands country, and had a relaxing time being driven around and lunching in delightful little restaurants. If you picture a mix of the wineries of Napa, the greenery of the Midwest, and the mountains of Yosemite, all by the ocean, then you can imagine how beautiful Cape Town is! Our fantastic guides in Cape Town were Tania and Yaseen, who had been highly recommended by former tablemates on the QE2. They operate Discovery Tours, which can be seen at www.discoverytours.co.za Tania and Yaseen are extremely personable and knowledgeable guides, and we soon came to think of them as old friends. Every tour they offer is completely personalized, and we were very fortunate to have found them.
When I went to the bathroom in the service station while driving in Cape Town there was one toilet with a sign on it "Eastern Toilet" so of course I had to take a peek. It was just a hole in the floor with tile footprints around it! All the other toilets were completely modern. (To think that some people actually prefer going potty this way!)
On a road in one of their lovely parks was a sign: "Squirrels have right of way."
"Such A Deal:" You can get a package deal in Cape Town: round-trip fare, face lift, and jungle safari cost less than the same face lift in America, and our guide Tania said their surgeons are excellent. It's a thriving business in this beautiful and breathtaking city! People here speak English and Afrikaans, a mixture of Dutch, African, and German.
During apartheid, they used to limit the number of blacks and colored who could come into the city of Cape Town proper, and they all had to show passes upon entry. If the quota was full, they were not allowed in. There had been forced removals of colored these families by the thousands, and they were all dumped onto the bleak, grim wastelands of Cape Flats in District Six right outside of Cape Town proper.
No water, electricity, or shelter of any kind. Tiny cardboard and scrap metal huts were erected, and soon the Mafia began to flourish. Today windows of homes and businesses in Cape Town are barred with signs "Armed Response"…There is a "District Six" museum dedicated to this period, with many heartbreaking photos and stories. There is a sign in the museum which reads: "In remembering we do not want to recreate District Six but to work with its memory… so that we can all together and by ourselves rebuild a city which belongs to all of us, in which all of us can live not as races but as people."
What adventures we've had and such amazing things we've seen! But now we're looking forward to being home again with our beloved family and friends. And so it's time to pack and prepare for the grueling 26-hour flight from Cape Town to London to San Francisco.
HOME SWEET HOME! Now we're home, and our wonderful, exotic trip seems like just a dream. But we remember…not only all of our great adventures but also some other things that will be indelibly printed in our minds forever. Such as the tiny, skeletal little boy in Mumbai missing his legs. How he sat away from the others, not begging himself--just sat looking sad and hopeless. How, when Johnny gave him some coins he broke out in a slow, incredulous, ear-to-ear smile…
This was written by a passenger on a previous voyage:
In Cape Town, too, some of the living conditions are unspeakably deplorable and unfair in the surrounding slums and wasteland that is Cape Flats. Our guide, Yaseen, said it's important neither to live in the past and nurse old grievances or to deny it completely; but to absorb it, integrate it as part of you, learn from it and move on. What an amazing attitude! I wonder if I could have done the same?
We were so fortunate in being able to take this trip, and are so very grateful for all we have, personally and as a country. Our freedoms and opportunities! How much is simply the luck of the draw-where you are born and to whom. The things we take for granted every single day without even being aware that we are doing so!
Hopefully, we can each in our own small way try to make some difference somewhere.
With love and appreciation to all of you from both of us, A humble and grateful Dolores & Johnny.
Dolores Hiskes, author of Phonics Pathways, is one of the world's experts on teaching reading. Her website is http://www.dorbooks.com To read her earlier article on cruising West Africa aboard the QE2, please click here.
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