Golden Geometry; India on $1200-a-day; Travels with my Mother

In 2009 my parents gave me their travel wish-list and my darling Mother, petrified of flying who only a few years prior obtained her passport, announced her desire to jet-off to India and see the Taj Mahal. Here’s how we toured India’s iconic golden triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) in luxurious style.

DelhiFirst stop Delhi and a stay at the Imperial Hotel. The grand lobby of this stately oasis oozed with scents of jasmine, nothing was too much trouble, and we enjoyed the relaxing ease of al fresco dining and afternoon tea in the lounge. So much history and culture in Old and New Delhi, here are some of the sites:

Notice the absence of pictures from the sound and light show at the Red Fort, the majestic Tomb of Humayun, my mom in her giant blue-flowered robe at Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India (we were fully covered, yet the provided adornment helps locals quickly identify tourists in the courtyard which has capacity for 25,000 people), and from Gandhi’s house (Gandhi Smriti) where we walked in the garden and followed the Mahatma’s final footsteps prior to his assassination on 30th January 1948 — I deleted those photos in an stone-cold-panic as I hastily cleared a memory card at the Taj, smooth move.

Leaving Delhi, just 40km outside Agra stands the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fatehpur Sikri (City of Victory), the short-lived capital of the Mughal empire during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Worth the drive to wonder through the immaculately preserved monuments and architectural wonders of the abandoned citadel city.

Onwards to the town of Agra with hectic festival-like chaos, streets teeming with people, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cows, and one lost monkey. The opulent Oberoi Amarvilas boasts each room views the Taj plus the hotel offers private golf cart transport to the Taj gate.

Pictures of the Taj Mahal (no these don’t do it justice; yes we have ten thousand more).

In the Pink City Jaipur, we entered the regal world of the Rambagh Palace Hotel. Welcomed like a Maharani, hotel guests are driven from the front gates in a vintage 1937 sedan, led by royal guard on horseback in procession with umbrella canopies; upon arrival walk atop strewn rose petals to the lobby where ointments and a tropical drink await.

The sites of Jaipur, Rajasthan:

Post-holiday I reflected on this new phase of life, a grown woman traveling with her mother. Although I’ve always had a dear connection with my Mom, we’re not personally close, as my strict, tight-lipped Catholic upbringing allowed us to share practical information, food and love, but not ideas or god-forbid personal longings or desires. However I did see another side to her in traveling, as you do. A wilful, independent side of her personality, haggling for rugs and marble and jewels in each respective city. Incidental, random stories emerged too, for example she shared this gem over dinner.

At home, as she was leaving a local restaurant, she passed by a table and noticed they ordered the fish. 

Mom: I said to the man, I was going to get that fish but didn’t know if I’d like it. Here, try mine, he replied.

Me: You ate fish off his plate? (asked in an incredulous tone)

Mom: Only a little bite.

Me: Who was he?

Mom: No idea.

Me: What? You ate off a stranger’s plate? Did he seem shocked when you said yes?

Mom: I don’t know. Glad I didn’t order the fish though, I didn’t like it.

Another day, we were driving between cities and she said “when I leave this place…” her voice trailed off and she paused before snapping “pay attention!” Ok I replied and she repeated, “when I leave this place, can I take the flowers” (she meant the beautiful fresh-cut frangipani and temple tree flowers from the hotel room). Gees, I replied I thought you meant leave, as in leave this place and were giving me instructions on arrangements. To which she replied, oh who cares about that! We both laughed.

Quite possibly people don’t see many mother-daughter travel partners, as everyone we met went out of their way to be kind to us. We were respectfully welcomed and well-wished in each locale. I did have to contend with “being the guy” for the trip sorting all the itineraries, tours, logistics, payments and tips. Hard work being the responsible one in charge. Not sure my Mom will ever fully understand me; she loves me though and I will cherish the memory of our Indian adventure.

homeward bound

homeward bound

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Next time I’ll see the real India – Passage to India P2

Phase two of my Indian holiday, an eco-retreat. Arguably a few days in Mumbai plus a spa week don’t count as the real India. Perhaps I only glimpsed the country as a passenger peering out car windows on purposeful journeys first through multi-national, western-ish Mumbai then the remote rural villages and semi-towns in the south. Every so often I did pause to soak up local culture – shopping at a roadside vegetable market, learning to eat biryani (rice dish) with yogurt served on a coconut leaf with my hands, praying at a Shiva temple in the seaside village of Gokarna, watching ritual chanting at a Brahmin house, snacking on two plump veggie samosas and a masala dosa (savoury pancake) from Udupi Café for Rs 50.00 or roughly .64 pence – the real, incredible India.

My next trip I’ll discover more authentic-traditional-modern-day India, but for now on to SwaSwara. Having spent my time planning Mumbai, it didn’t occur to me to research the spa week other than to buy Lonely Planet Goa. Interesting oversight because I flew into  Goa – an Indian state known as party central, Portuguese influenced, Roman Catholic dominated – and drove straight out of it. From Dabolim Airport the gated compound of SwaSwara is a 3-hour drive via motorway-of-sorts into the neighbouring state of Karnataka. An ayurvedic holistic spa in southern India, a place of healing, wellness and peace – translated from Sanskrit SwaSwara means inner-rhythm or sound of Self. I began my soul-journey with the traditional greeting. Namaskara.

Here is s a taste of my surprisingly busy days. Wake up and head straight to the Yoga Shala (Yoga House) for early morning sun salutations. Daylight streams through large picture windows which overlook the lake, gardens, and Arabian Sea on the horizon.

Time for breakfast – fresh fruit juices, herb-flavoured water, dried fruit, nuts, paratha bread with warm vegetables, and masala tea. I linger enjoying chai and a chat with new friends until it’s time for my ayurvedic treatment. Ayurveda is an ancient Indian science of healing based on balancing bio-energies called doshas. Special oils and spices are blended and heated for my massage. By now I am over the initial shock of going au naturale and after a Vedic prayer, Sowmya and Sivathri start pouring hot oil over me. The four-hands of my two therapists know the full-length-front-back of my body better than some ex-boyfriends. I drift into deep relaxation with warm smells and gentle sounds of chanting monks swirling in the background. Afterward a quick talk with the Doctor, she offers a honeyed tea and tries to explain my Kapha-Vata-Pitta from my Chakras. Already noon-time and that means back to the Shala for Yoga Nidra or “yogic sleep.” This type of yoga is a state of conscious deep sleep that gently focuses the mind and aids in awareness, clarity, and calm. The staff join us for this session and we tease each other that we’re not actually meant to fall asleep. Wake-up or rather come out of deep mediation in time for lunch. Today’s menu is luscious greens, curried vegetables, and a sweet pudding. Relax and consider how to spend the warm, sunny afternoon, I may opt for quiet self-reflection on the yoga deck in my villa or under the 400-year old Banyan tree by the lake or maybe a walk on Om Beach, shaped like the first sound of creation and thus named. Instead I visit the art studio where Jyothi, the artist in-residence, encourages me to explore my inner painter and unleash imagination on canvas. This week SwaSwara is hosting an art camp so we watch the artists work and feel creative energy pulsing through the gallery.

No time to nap because sunset yoga is about to begin in the Blue Dome followed by early evening mantra chanting or Tratak mediation – gazing at a candle flame for improved concentration and intuitiveness.

Tonight at dinner we discuss the international plight of women and generally put the world to right over four courses – cauliflower potato pathé, drumstick dry mango soup, Dum Aloo Kashmiri with mirchi dal and cumin chapattis, and to finish an avocado ginger pannecotta. All the meals are locally produced, beautifully presented, and mouth-wateringly delicious. An added bonus, the diet helps develop “prana” or vital energy, spiritual consciousness, and encourages the development of peace, love and humility – so I indulge in a few more bites for the good of humanity. We eventually have to say goodnight and I stroll back to my villa gazing at the star-filled heavens in disbelief that the awe-inspiring sky, millions of floating stars have managed to escape my notice as of late. Back in my sanctuary I wish my little frog goodnight, I’ll see him tomorrow in the semi-open-air shower. Smiling. Exhausted. Sleep.

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My days at SwaSwara felt rhythmic and routine. The surroundings are charmingly serene and the staff is brilliant, instantly welcoming, generous, and fun. Guests regularly stay 2-to-3 weeks. I can see why. Unplugged, I restricted my internet and television intake, denied myself the daily stream of media downloaded directly into my synapses. Freedom. I felt sunbursts of contentment, waves of pleasure, glimmers of happiness, even joy-adjacent – emotions I hadn’t experienced in nearly a year since I suddenly, expectedly lost my father. Anyone who has known loss understands the numbness, which evaporates into agonizing sorrow, chaos. Yet amazing, quietly, and unannounced I started to feel well in my mind, body and soul, better than well in fact. I started to listen to myself and believe in my own powers to create and attract oneness with the universe. I started to remember there are no shortcuts to physical health and the Master Cleanser is not a lifestyle choice. How powerful to cultivate your own well-being and nourish your body-mind-soul. Chant away every worry and crease in your mind, listen to yourself, and connect with a higher power. Maybe it is not a holiday for everyone. It should be. I nearly extended my time, but alas a far more worthy endeavour is attempting to re-create that sense of bliss in my daily life. Not easy. I miss the delightfully healthy meals and Prince’s beaming smile, but I drink my water hot and keep up with yoga practice. It is a start.

If by chance this world is powered with positive energy, kindness, and laughter then we owe a debt of gratitude to SwaSwara’s tiny corner of the globe for keeping us going. Always looking for my next adventure, yet this place I’ll visit again. In the meantime, to my SwaSwara friends, Dhanyavad (thank you) – Om Tat Sat (all that is True) – See you soon.

By any other name, dreams of Bombay – Passage to India P1

I’d vote for India to be the next global super-power and will explain why but first let me share my adventures in Mumbai.

Having done my research and being amply prepared for India immediately assaulting my senses upon arrival, I discovered Mumbai has palpable energy like many metropolises however my senses weren’t attacked. Outside the new, ultra-modern international airport, only my ears rang slightly with what would become a constant, familiar drone of car horns and congested traffic. Mumbai is a sprawling city, western, traditional, crowded, cultural with rich people and many, many poor. My self-made itinerary included tradition tourist attractions from the Gateway of India to Malabar Hill, glamorous Bollywood, packed commuter trains, and the famed dabbawallas (tiffin-carriers). A tour of Dharavi now-infamous courtesy of Slumdog Millionaire, Asia’s largest slum has a million people living in the confined space of two square kilometers contrasted with the lavish 27-storey residence of Indian billionaire Mr. Mukesh Ambani with 600 staff members looking after the family of six.

My personal Mumbai highlight reel goes like this. Within hours I was ripped off by a taxi driver. I was prepared for this. Ready to negotiate. However being slightly lost and starting to wander in circles and after asking several drivers to take me to “Queens Road” which I’m sure is South Mumbai’s equivalent to 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive. Never-mind the blank stares and horizontal shaking heads, I was getting agitated and somewhat desperate, not an ideal combination for the barter system. Finally I had a taxi and when the price was negotiated from Rs100 to Rs200—wait that’s not negotiation, I said okay anyway. At least he was kind enough to tell me about his life, wife and two little girls, and he thanked me and wished me well. After buying silks, a sari, and three salwaar kameez suits which I may only have occasion to wear by crashing Sikh weddings in London, I braced myself for the journey back to the hotel. Going to the Taj carrying shopping bags from Kala Niketan and Roop Kala I was ready to make my donation to the universal taxi-driver-tourist-trust-fund. Instead this driver metered the trip and the journey cost a mere 23 rupee or roughly .30 pence. You never know and should never assume who is going to cheat you. I’m not complaining since my first taxi cost all of £2.50 it’s just an 800% mark-up demonstrates a keen awareness of laissez-faire economics.

The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel is a bubble of luxury and can boast the most invitingly comfortable, cloud-like bed and pillows, ever. Tearing myself away from high-tea at the blissfully colonial Palace Lounge, I was off to Elephanta Caves, a Unesco World Heritage Site, located an hour boat ride from Apollo Bunder on Gharapuri Island. After a long, uphill souvenir and snack-stall-lined climb, you can wander through the caves housing Hindu stone sculptures dating from the 7th century. Here I learned if you cannot be a Bollywood star in India, consider being a blonde. Indian tourists from east Gujarat to West Bengal were asking to take pictures with me, honestly, I was handed a baby at one point. I wasn’t special, all fair-haired tourists were photo-fair-game. I am curious to know what people will write in their photo albums; mine says “now could you take one for me – me with Punjabi table-tennis champ.”

My next project was to solve the mystery of Chhatrapati Shivaji; when the train station, international and domestic airports, museum, various roads, and publics buildings are re-named in your honour either you are important or someone is determined to confuse visitors. Turns out this 17th century Maratha warrior king is the adopted patron of Shiv Sena, the contemporary militant Hindu party responsible for the revisions and for his statues across the city. Shiv Sena also renamed Mumbai after a local deity in the mid-90s. What is in a name after-all. Many locals still refer to their city as Bombay and despite death to the memory of colonialism, the national sport of cricket and the institution of afternoon tea seem safe.

Busy day transformed into frenetic night. Mumbai nightlife is like any other uber-cool-trendy city; restaurants, music, cocktails, and clubs. One of my favourite evenings started at the Taj’s Harbour Bar with their signature drink, from the harbour since 1933, and ended at the Taj many hours later at Wasabi by Morimoto after Rs11,130 worth of sake and sushi flown fresh from Japan. Akin to having a curry in Italy, yet truthfully it was better quality fish than I’ve had in London despite costing the equivalent of two months local salary.

Everyone I met had a story, a perspective about the vast contrasts in Mumbai. Wealth and opulence, 5-star hotels and wine-bars juxtaposition to dirty, poverty-stricken streets without the courtesy of a progressive-gradual transition of neighbourhoods. One of my new friends remarked “I’ll always be poor” in spite of what appeared to be a lucrative career in hospitality. His wife’s inability to speak English, one of many keys to mobility, meant she could never get a good job. He went to on to educate me about the Bangladeshi slums where migrant numbers are ever-increasing for a chance in the city of dreams—how bad must it be in Bangladesh. When I suggested that he was better off than those living in Dharavi, he surprisingly said many residents there work and have bank accounts and probably would have more money to leave their children than he would. Curious. Vanita, another local resident and veteran tour-guide, and I discussed everything from Ghandhi to the price of petrol. She explained how the Tata Motor group manufactures the Nano, a tiny car costing just £2000.00; literally the world’s cheapest car but with petrol costing 65 rupee a litre, nearly UK prices, who can own a car? Such is the plight of the emerging middles class. When I asked Vanita, is it a bit brazen being driven on a city-safari in our air-conditioned sedan. She replied your life is your life. Why should anyone living out their karma, trying to live a good life, feel guilt or envy of another? It wasn’t really a question.

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Like most things of significance the situation in India is complex. From my vast knowledge after spending three days in Mumbai, here is my perspective. Assuming the Eurozone can’t recover, fourteen trillion in debt is just too much for America to overcome, and I had to choose India versus China as the next power giant, I’d choose the former. First India is now the world’s largest democracy so albeit the governance rather corrupt, it’s familiar. Hindi is the official national language, however English is widely spoken and undoubtedly the language of commerce and the intelligencia. Without population control policy, 500 million of the billion plus Indian populace are under the age of 25. All factors key in world domination. India has excellent intangibles too like generosity and kindness of its people that apparently exists without envy. An incredible work ethic with many people working 12 to 15 hour days, six days a week; hard-working, modest, and humble are revered qualities. India is 80% Hindu, a religion renowned for tolerance; if your religion can’t get along with the Hindus (and you know who you are) then you need to have a long talk with your religion.

The barriers for India include the not so minor points of wide-spread illiteracy, extreme corruption, social inequality, and under-reported regional conflicts but every neophyte power has problems. Still if Mumbai exemplifies the microcosm of the country, superpowerdom is coming soon.

Leaving Mumbai my final memory, President Obama on a billboard ad-campaign selling pens. Definitely unauthorized, probably illegal. Still funny.

P.S. Happy Diwali!

My Passage to India

Vaccinations…√ Malaria meds… √ Tourist visa… √

Interestingly, an Indian visa costs more if you travel on a US passport because as I learned from the application centre staff member, “Americans are rich.” Does no one watch the news anymore? Last time I checked, our economy was in the gutter. Nevertheless, after a few minutes with currency converter I realized that Americans are indeed rich. We have a lot of stuff, an excessive amount in fact, and although that doesn’t make you rich it does mean we have a money tree somewhere. By comparison, the average Indian income 21,000 Rupees per year, that’s about $441/£280 per year. Go ahead High Commission of India, charge me twice the price for my visa; go ahead Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (Prince of Wales Museum) charge Indian visitors 15 Rupees and Foreigners visitors 300 Rupees (or roughly $6.00/£4.00). Basically good news, it looks like we are rich in the monetary sense but I digress.

After a few days in Mumbai, I fly to an eco-retreat in Goa. A holistic week of mind-body-soul at SwaSwara, which translates from Sanskrit to inner rhythm, is just what the doctor ordered for soul-cleansing, spiritual creativity. Perhaps I won’t transcend to a higher state of being but my daily Ayurvedic massages and therapies should cure all my evils.

My trip to India is several lifetimes overdue. In my second semester of University I sat mesmerized in Professor Doug Brooks’ class “From Confucius to Zen” and I fell in love with ancient India. Despite my conservative Catholic upbringing, the stories of  Vishnu, Rama, and Shiva swirled in my imagination. From Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries to philosophies of past lives and practices of yoga and mediation; this is the India I want to explore. What I’m likely to find is modern India, a super-power débutante, poised for emergence on the global stage yet its vast populace is plagued with illiteracy and poverty. Of Mumbai’s urban-dwellers, more than half live in slums. The anachronistic caste system of which a palatable version has morphed its way into modern Britain is at war with less conservative, more commercial, and capitalistic values.

That’s my impression of incredible India pre-departure. I wonder what I’ll encounter and how my preconceived notions will change. Unplugging. See you in two weeks.