For breakfast, a glass of saffron-flavored makhani lassi - thick and sweet - at the Shri Mishrilal Hotel in Jodhpur, and masala dosa with excellent mint chutney, sambar, and rasam from Saravana Bhavan in Chennai or Delhi. Sunrise at the magnificent Taj Mahal - just the two of us, no one else in sight. Next, the well-organized self-guided-audio-tour through Jodhpur's imposing fort Mehrangarh. For lunch, either a thali or a crispy onion uttapam with a refreshing glass of thick mango juice. In the afternoon, a visit to the Gandhi Museums in Madurai and Mumbai, and a hike through the tea plantations near Ooty. Later, we watch worshippers at the busy Sri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. For sunset, we are at three places at the same time: at the top of Matanga Hill looking down on the ruins of Hampi amidst thousands of huge boulders; atop the red cliffs of Varkala watching the sun go down colorfully over the Arabian Sea; and at Kanyakumari, where the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal meet, waiting for the night to fall over Vivekananda Memorial. Dinner starts with onion pakora, followed by navratan korma at Hotel Ajantha in Bangalore, or palak paneer, or chicken tikka, or channa masala. All accompanied by garlic naan or stuffed parotha. Or at the Fusion in Kovalam, we have oven-roasted tomatoes with a spice crust on ginger cashew nut noodles. Or we savor delicious home-cooked meals at Ramesh Jangid's Tourist Pension in Nawalgarh, at Vijay Guest House in Bikaner, and at Saji Sanwri in Jodhpur. Finally for dessert, there is cashew burfi and kheer. Throughout the day, we have pleasant interactions with delightful people and even the autorickshaw drivers are smiling. At night, we fall asleep in our comfortable beds with freshly laundered sheets after having had a refreshing shower with exactly the right temperature.
Obviously, it took weeks for us to experience all of the above, and it would take a 100 hour day to cram in all of it: nevertheless, this is one variation of my perfect day in India. But, there is a completely different side to this fascinating country.
My back hurts from a night on a mattress-less bed. I did not sleep much anyways since I spent most of the night flattening mosquitoes and trying to catch 2" cockroaches. Did I mention traffic noise, the constant gushing sounds of the hotel's ageing
plumbing, and the big group of obnoxiously loud tourists next door? After surviving the kitchen chef's failed attempt at Western breakfast, we set foot outside the hotel. Immediately, we are at the center of attention. There are so many people. Within seconds, our ideas of personal space are completely overthrown. Autorickshaw drivers launch at us. We manage to shake off the autorickshaw drivers, but still have to deal with even more persistent restaurant touts, hotel touts, and souvenir shop touts. The stench from the open sewage canals intensified by the above 40°C heat hits us right in the stomach. Someone is urinating next to the hotel's entrance. Fighting back nausea, we step through the filthy garbage on the street as begging kids pull on our pants and shirts to get our attention. Their sad look, unwashed faces and hands, and rag-like clothing are still on our minds when a man's hands, deformed by leprosy, reach out to us. Our eyes catch sight of a mother and her dust-covered baby who does not seem to move. Another man tries to bring his polio-crippled body closer to us. We start walking away from the touts who are still talking at us. We are now looking for an autorickshaw driver who is less obviously greedy. A little further down the street, road construction is creating traffic chaos. Women carry large rock-filled baskets on their heads while their young children run around the construction site. One of them shits in the middle of the road. I feel something touching my hiking boot and look down. A shoe shiner has put a white paste on my shoe in hopes of increasing his chances for business. We flag down an autorickshaw driver. It takes minutes to haggle down to an appropriate price for our ride. After a short while, it becomes clear that the driver has no idea where the destination we agreed upon is located. We end up directing him all the way using our maps from the travel guide. Eventually, we get there.
We start walking along the ocean towards one of the smaller churches in the center of Kanyakumari. From a distance, we have heard uninterrupted music from the church for a few days now. Soon we realize that we will not be able to get closer. The volume is turned up to a point where listening is painful - how do people live here day in and day out? As we are just about to turn around, a man steps out of one of the houses. He is holding a dead rat by its tail, swings his arm, and throws the rat onto the beach where the next wave takes the rat with it. We are transported to the ruins of Hampi and the narrow streets of Jodhpur where kids find it funny to throw stones in our direction. In a dusty street of a Shekhawati town, we come about an adult dog eating a puppy. We have lost all appetite for lunch. In the afternoon, we visit Bangalore's gardens - not a good idea in the dry season. In Mumbai, we try to find the INS Vikrant, an aircraft carrier turned into a museum and prominently featured in our travel guide. All we find out is that tours have not run for years. Later in the day, we visit a Hindu temple and are once more disappointed because non-Hindus are not allowed into the most interesting part of the temple.
None of the days I experienced in India was as perfect as my perfect day (cannot realistically expect one such day anyways), or as bad as the annoyingly tedious one described earlier (I do not think I know of anyone who would want to stay in India if all of this were to happen in one day!). Each day had its share of the great and the demanding. Contrary to all other countries I traveled, I was not sure for the longest time whether I would want to return to India. At some point towards the end of our travels, I realized that I do want to come back and visit parts of the country that I have not been able to until now, and to revisit towns and areas I enjoyed very much: Varkala, Kochi, Ooty, Karnataka, Shimla, and Rajasthan to name a few. I have a feeling - actually, it is more than a feeling, but an observation from many other travelers who have been to India: the longer I have been away from India, the more enticing it will be to return to this unbelievable country.
|burfi|| ||a dessert made from milk with a fudge-like consistency and flavors such as saffron, vanilla, rose water, pistachio, etc.|
|channa masala||chickpeas in spicy gravy|
|chicken tikka||skewered boneless chicken cooked in a tandoor oven|
|kheer||cardamom-flavored rice pudding|
|lassi||yogurt drink, may be sweet or salty or mixed with fruits|
|masala dosa||very thin fried crepe made of ground rice/lentils, filled with a spicy potato mixture|
|naan||flat bread made from white flour, prepared in a tandoor oven|
|navratan korma||mildly flavored creamy dish made with nine kinds of vegetables and garnished with nuts and dried fruits|
|pakora||deep-fried vegetables (potatoes, onions, chilies, spinach leaves, etc.) in a spiced chickpea flour batter|
|palak paneer||spinach curry with homemade cheese cubes|
|parotha||whole-wheat unleavened flatbread usually filled with a vegetable mixture|
|rasam||spicy thin tamarind-flavored lentil broth|
|sambar||South Indian lentil curry|
|thali||meal which consists of a small amount of several dishes of food with rice or an Indian bread, often served on a banana leaf|
|uttapam||rice pancakes which are thicker than dosa||