So, we went to India.
I don’t remember when, exactly, we moved from “someday, we will have to take the kids to India” to “we are going to India, like, now,” but I know it was sometime after Robin’s cousin announced her wedding and sometime before this continual buzzing started in my head. We really did always mean to take them, but I, at least, had assumed that “someday” was far, far in the future, until we started speculating that it was possible that we could go to the wedding, and then it actually turned out to be possible. (Due, in no small part, to the generosity of Robin’s parents, who wanted their grandchildren to have the opportunity to meet Robin’s dad’s family – Robin’s dad being the only member of that branch of the family tree who lives in the US.)
We knew it was also possible that this might be the only time we ever got the chance to go all together, so we set out to make the most of it. We scheduled our arrival in India about a week before the wedding so that we would have time to show the kids more of the country. An unexpected bonus side trip developed when Delta changed our flight to include a 5+-hour layover in Amsterdam. Week 1, AKA The Tourism Week, went something like this:
Leg 1: Minneapolis to Amsterdam
Highlights: The pleasant surprise that my kids managed the long airport waits and the longer flight with (mostly) good grace. Seeing the famous canals and the Anne Frank museum. Meeting a good friend of Robin’s family, who spent hours on a train just to be able to walk around with us and drink hot chocolate for an hour before we had to go back to the airport. Realizing that I still know how to read a European train schedule when we *just* missed a train back to the airport and had to scramble to a different platform to catch the next one.
Low points: Losing Robin’s jacket somewhere at the airport, which made him dread the return to Minneapolis for the rest of the trip. Trying to absorb the reality of the Anne Frank museum. Rushing through the train station with three kids whose first international flight chose that moment to really catch up with them.
Leg 2: Amsterdam to New Delhi
Highlights: The HUGE relief of finding that our tour arrangements were solid and safe. Watching the kids swim in the hotel’s outdoor pool (in February!). Touring Delhi, including Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque, commissioned by the same Mughal emperor – Shah Jahan - who commissioned the Taj Mahal), Humayan’s tomb, and Rajghat (A memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, this is a restful and beautiful tribute in the middle of this overwhelming city. Our tour guide pointed out that there are memorials in the same park for Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, among others, but that very few visitors ever bother to walk past Gandhiji’s. Neither did we.), and Qtub Minar (a Turkish/Persian heritage site amidst the sea of Mughal sites in and around Delhi).
Low points: It is very common in India (and elsewhere, I’m told) for tour guides to have side deals set up with restaurants and shops, and to bring you there whether or not they are worth seeing. All of our guides did this to a certain extent, but the Delhi guy was the worst, and his “guidance” at the attractions we saw that day did little to make up for it. I hope his kickbacks were worth it, because he got a much smaller tip than our guides in Agra and Jaipur. Possibly we were all still jet-lagged, too, or affected by Delhi’s infamous smog and crowding (It’s important to note that I am describing Delhi as crowded in comparison with the rest of India, not in comparison to what Americans generally consider overpopulated. Delhi=Disneyland during spring break if all the other attractions in California, including the ocean itself, are closed.), but I just didn’t enjoy Delhi nearly as much as the rest of the tour.
Mahatma Gandhi Memorial
Leg 3: New Delhi to Agra
Highlights: Oh, there are so many! Our Delhi tour guide was so meh that when we met the Agra guide (“Winnie, like Winnie the Pooh”), we almost laughed with relief. He was personable and funny (He claimed to have been Oprah’s personal tour guide when she visited Agra. I don’t think he meant that as a joke, but privately we found it very amusing.), and the very first place he took us was a rooftop restaurant with an incredible sunset view of the Taj Mahal. It might just have been the view helping things along, but that might be the best cup of chai I have ever had. Then we asked Winnie to drop us off at Pizza Hut for dinner, and he did. (We ate local for every meal but 3: Pizza Hut in Agra, McDonald’s in Jaipur, and KFC in Kolkata. A lot of travellers will tell you it’s lame to eat something you could get at home, but it’s fun to see how the menu changes to adapt to local tastes and customs. Don’t knock the Chicken Maharajah Mac until you’ve tried it, is all I’m saying.)
In and around Agra, there are several more incredible examples of Mughal architecture, like Agra Fort and Akbar the Great’s* tomb, all leading up, of course, to the Taj Mahal itself. As you visit each one, you marvel at the symmetry and the beautiful gardens and the opulence that these emperors saw fit to lavish on their wives and later their tombs. And then you arrive at the Taj Mahal and think, “Never mind, all those other guys were just pretending to be great. Winner: Shah Jahan.” He probably didn’t think so, what with losing his wife and then being thrown into a cell by his son (Aurangzeb), but hopefully he knows that history has vindicated him. Two Taj facts, among the many thrown at us: 1) Shah Jahan was such a huge fan of symmetry that the Taj as it exists today is actually not his complete vision. There should have been a matching compound of black marble across the river. His son felt that this was not the best use of the government’s money and … well, like I said, that didn’t end happily. 2) Despite the incredible focus on symmetry, the one thing that isn’t perfect in that respect at the Taj Mahal is Shah Jahan’s tomb. Supposedly, this is because he intended to be buried in the black structure across the river, and instead Aurangzeb just had another tomb added to his mother’s burial place. This never really made sense to me, though, because neither of the viewable tombs are the real burial places anyway – those are below the cenotaphs the public can see – so why not adjust the architecture above ground? Unless, of course, it was Aurangzeb’s final flipping off of his father…
I could go on about Agra for several more paragraphs, but I will stop with one last story. Winnie took us to a buffet restaurant for lunch (his turn for a kickback), where we met a Parisian family of Moroccan dissent who were on their own tour through the Golden Triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur). I got to try out my French, they got to try out their English, and we had a good laugh about the convoluted nature of our heredity (American/Bengali family attempts to converse with French/Moroccan family – news at 11). This is what I love about travelling – you can be in a completely new place with total strangers, and suddenly feel like you’ve met a long-lost friend.
Low points: I had hoped by this point in the trip Ben would’ve been over his aversion to the malaria prevention meds. No such luck. We continued to battle with him every day, finally giving up 3 days after we returned to Minnesota (You are supposed to take them through your trip and for a week after your return. I took my chances.)
Cold drinks with the Best Backdrop EVER
Leg 4: Agra to Jaipur
Highlights: On the way to Jaipur, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a compound built by Akbar the Great for his aforementioned 3 wives*. We didn’t have much time there, but our guide was wonderful. Apparently, Akbar liked the Hindu wife best, as her palace was the largest, but according to our (Muslim) guide, it was only because she gave him a son.
We made one other unscheduled stop on the way to Jaipur. Our driver, Davinder, tried his own hand at playing tour guide and took us to the village of Abhaneri to see the well and the remains of the temple. We weren’t thrilled at the detour (not because it’s not worth seeing, but because yet another guide was there expecting yet another tip – this time for something we never intended to see), but Davinder had taken such good care of us at every turn that it was hard to begrudge him the attempt. He bought little treats for the kids, cheerfully picked us up and dropped us off at not just our whims but the whims of all the different guides we had along the way, and stuck right by our sides anytime we had to go somewhere without a guide, just to make sure we were OK. When we had to say goodbye to him, Riya cried and Karina gave him Rainbow Loom bracelets to give his kids.
In Jaipur, we met our last official guide, Hare. I wasn’t sure about Hare, until, while explaining some architectural features at Amber Fort intended to preserve ladies’ modesty while still allowing them to gaze adoringly at the Maharajah as he arrived, he slyly asked if I ever tossed rose petals at Robin when he arrived home from work. When we laughed at that, he seemed to relax, and spent the rest of the tour keeping us on our toes with little jokes about the lives of those kings and queens gone by.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, an Indian state that was new to me on this trip (I had been to Delhi and Agra with Robin before). It’s very different, having been ruled by the Rajputs rather than directly by the Mughals. It was clear from Hare’s stories and demeanor as he showed us the palace at Amber Fort and pointed out the royal family’s residences still being used that even though they don’t have any official political power any more, they are still very influential in the area.
The city is beautiful, surrounded by hills and built largely out of pink sandstone. We got a tremendous view of it as we rode up to Amber Fort on elephants (!!!), which I think was the kids’ very very very best favorite moment of the whole trip. It’s also in the middle of a desert, so February was a good time to go.
Near the City Palace is Jantar Mantar, a collection of astronomical instruments that are astounding in their accuracy. The kids were ready to be done with the historical touristy stuff by the time we got there, but if I ever get a chance in my lifetime to go back, Jantar Mantar is a place where I think I could spend fascinated hours watching the way the sundials work.
Low points: Honestly, none, really. I would go back to Rajasthan in a heartbeat.
View of the Amber Palace gardens and valley as seen FROM AN ELEPHANT
Riya, Julie, and Karina ON AN ELEPHANT
Grandpa, Daddy, and Ben ON AN ELEPHANT
After Jaipur, Davinder drove us back to Delhi so that we could catch a train to Kolkata, which will be Part 3, so stay tuned…
*Awkward – I had written something about Akbar and his wives, took it out, but missed where I got all fancy with my “aforementioned.” Rather than rewrite AGAIN, here’s the deal with Akbar – he had a Muslim wife, a Hindu wife, and a Christian wife. He built them all their own palaces, but he also seems to have desired harmony – he tried to create his own fusion religion. When he commissioned his palaces and tombs, he had them covered with important symbols from all three traditions.