A trip to India was never on my bucket list. But then my dad, a man far younger than his 82 years, told my sisters and me that he was going to Mumbai for a photography workshop and would travel around the country for a few weeks.
He wanted to go to the North Indian "Golden Triangle" of New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. But while that is the standard tourist route, my father did not want to see India from the seat of a rickshaw -- he wanted to experience it. I worried that this basically healthy man with a sensitive gut and limited food savvy would get sick and that he (from whom I had inherited a lack of internal compass) would get lost in the chaotic streets of New Delhi. Then I envisioned the incredible photographic opportunities those teeming streets would provide. I asked if I could tag along: We could get lost together.
Footloose in Delhi
And that is exactly what we did: We lost ourselves not in but to India. The characterizations of India that had long put me off are fair: It is dirty, crowded, chaotic and heartbreakingly poor. But these are not reasons to stay away. They are as much a part of the country's intrigue as the beautiful strands of gold and red marigolds and the flowing saris one sees everywhere. Hospitality is so embedded in the culture that the national saying is, "A guest is the incarnation of God." The monuments are magnificent, the food is aromatic and wildly flavorful.
To get a real taste of the Indian capital, we took a walking tour with Dhruv Gupta, of Masterji Kee Haveli (masterji keehaveli.com). As we wove through the jagging, narrow lanes of Old Delhi, jostled by motorbikes, rickshaws, cows and pedestrians, Dhruv told us about the people (some of the shopkeepers sitting cross-legged in the alcove-like shops are wealthy, fourth-generation merchants); customs (limes strung with chilies hang above doorways to ward off bad luck) and foods (he plucked a water chestnut from a cart and showed us how to peel and safely eat it). We passed countless brightly lit temples, no wider than a doorway, filled with burning candles and elaborately decorated Hindu gods. Dad and I were enthralled.
At the Taj Mahal we began to see the heart of India. It seems that all matters of romance in India refer to this monument to love, located in Agra, a four-hour drive from Delhi. The drive itself is a visual feast. We shared the road with tiny open trucks packed with men, women and children on their way to work the farms; cows and water buffalo; cars and the occasional tourist bus.
The Taj Mahal was as magnificent as we'd heard. Our hotel, the Oberoi Amarvilas, also lived up to its hype (and its price): Our rooms overlooked majestic terraced lawns, reflecting pools and fountains -- and, yes, the Taj. The hotel makes every "best" list, and its understated elegance is in sharp contrast to what we saw elsewhere in India. ("Basic" premium rooms are priced from $754; oberoihotels.com/oberoi_amarvilas/index.asp.)
Crashing the party
We were in India at the height of festival season (October through December), and opulent, visually dizzying celebrations were everywhere. Music and chanting emanating from decorated tents meant there was a festival or a wedding within -- and that my father would want to go inside. I hesitated, knowing how I would react if a passerby wandered into my party. Not Dad: He'd simply ask if we could take a look and shoot a few photos -- and we were welcomed in. People came to talk to us: They were as interested in us as we were in them. At a Bengali festival outside Agra, a young woman struck up a conversation with me as I watched the priest perform a rite with a fiery torch. She explained the rituals, and soon we were deep in conversation about her dental practice, impending wedding and more. Her father and mine, speaking the universal language of dads, snapped our pictures. As I was leaving, Jaya slipped a bracelet off her wrist and put it on mine as a remembrance of our friendship.
On the way to Jaipur, we stopped at the deserted Mughul capital of Fatehpur Sikri, a World Heritage Site as worth visiting for its colorful history lesson as for its stunning design and architecture. In Jaipur, we took an enchanting, bumpy ride on painted elephants up to the Amber Fort. (The elephants are purportedly treated with great respect.)
We could easily have spent the entire day exploring the maharajah's complex of palaces, gardens and temples, but we wanted to visit the City Palace, where the royal family still lives; see the Hawal Mahak (the Palace of Winds); and shop for hand-woven rugs, block print fabrics and jewelry.
At night, we went to one of many restaurants that feature folk dancing and watched as a dancer balanced five pots on her head and another swallowed fire.
Tea time in Jaipur
These tourist experiences were wonderful, but, as in Delhi, a walking tour of Jaipur gave us a more intimate understanding of the city and its people. Akshat Mathur, of Virasta Experiences (virasatexperiences.com), led us through areas where the locals live, shop and eat and took us into a private home for tea with the owner and to a temple where an elderly woman taught me prayer rituals through gesture.
I can't guarantee anyone will have as many adventures as I did in India. After all, you are not going with my father. But I can tell you that if you approach this country with acceptance for the things about India that are so different from ours -- the hygiene, poverty, crowds and chaos -- you will experience a warm and welcoming people with a rich and colorful history, astounding visual arts, and intriguing customs and spirituality.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
* Drink only bottled water.
* Always use hand sanitizer before you eat or drink.
* Women must cover their heads in many places; bring or buy a shawl.
* Consult your doctor and the CDC website for shots, immunizations and medications you may need.
* Wear slip-on shoes: You will need to remove them to visit many temples.
* There is generally a small surcharge to bring cameras and video equipment into sites.
* Women should wear modest, loose-fitting clothing.
* When shopping, bargain. Begin at half the asking price and move up from there.
* To avoid spicy food, ask for suggestions when ordering. Some dishes can be adjusted and some cannot.
PLANNING AND RESOURCES
We used an Indian-based tour agency, Trinetra Tours (trinetratoursindia.com), via email to help plan our itinerary, and book guides, drivers, hotels and domestic air travel. Every detail went smoothly, our guides were knowledgeable and helpful; the director of the agency called periodically to check in.
Hiring a car and guide is not costly and will help you get more out of your time in India. Our tour agency booked all cars and guides. Hiring through hotels is more expensive.