India

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Students at the Shakti School of Dance in Pushkar

 

My trip to India (February 17-March 8, 2007) was quite amazing.  It was a very long trip, of course, but I was lucky and did not suffer too much from the aeronautical ordeal, nor did I have jet leg or any of the other ailments that sometimes afflict travelers, especially to exotic lands.

 

Upon arrival in Delhi I went to my hotel, a nice one located in a very bustling neighborhood filled with street vendors, cows, rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, donkeys, elephants and camels.  All of India was like that.  The word “teeming” was invented for that country, people everywhere racing to and fro.  My first impression, besides being overwhelmed with the chaos, was that I had found myself in the least charming country I had ever visited.   The next day I went for a long walk around parts of Delhi, which is horribly polluted, and was very disappointed, not finding anything of particular interest.  One is constantly accosted by people wanting to be your guide, asking where you are from, or wanting to give you a shoe shine (“same color!” they always promise).  My one adventure on that day in fact involved a shoe shine.  I was waiting to cross a street when one extremely persistent young man attracted my attention by pointing in horror at my right shoe.  I looked down to see a mysterious brown substance resting there in a neat pile.  It was from the monkeys, he said (of course, there was not a monkey in sight).  Not wanting to deal with it myself, I decided it would be easiest just to have him clean it off.  He took me to his little stand and wanted to remove my shoe, but fortunately I wouldn’t allow that.   When finished he announced that the price would be 600 rupee (a princely but staggering sum of around $14US).    Another shoe shine person, who pretended not to know him, asked me how much he wanted, and he said “oh no, should only be 500 rupee”).  I protested a bit and finally stuffed a 100 rupee note in his pocket, turned around and walked off, the victim of my first (and fortunately only) India scam.  Later that day I read in my guidebook that that was a common ruse.  From that point on I was extremely vigilant around shoe shine people.

 

The next day I had scheduled a guided tour to Agra to see the famed Taj Mahal.  I had arranged this somewhat casually when it popped up as an advertisement on the website where I was reserving my hotel.  I assumed I would travel on a luxurious bus with other tourists where I could hide anonymously in the back and see the mandatory sights in as painless a manner as possible.  At 6 am a car driven by a sikh in a traditional turban appeared as promised at my hotel.  After driving for about 45 minutes (Delhi is quite large, after all), I meekly inquired as to when we would arrive at the bus.   No bus! he exclaimed.  He was going to drive me all the way to Agra (a 4 to 5 hour trip) where we would pick up my personal guide, see the sights, and then drive back (the trip back would be even longer, he promised).  The trip there was bad enough.  Indian roads, as I may have hinted, are clogged with all sorts of conveyances, all of which share the road and all of which push the principal of aggressiveness to its ultimate limit.  Indians believe that horns are made to be used, and they are, incessantly.  I don’t believe I ever saw a driver over 40.  Not that they are all killed off.  Surprisingly, I saw no accidents.  Its just that after that age one would simply not be able to cope with the pace of the unbridled anarchy which rules the roads.  And yet, at the same time, I witnessed the sight of cows taking a nap on the pavement, next to the center divider, seemingly oblivious to the drivers who deftly avoided them as just another obstacle in the road.

 

Once there, the Taj Mahal was a bit of a disappointment.  It looked remarkably like it does in pictures, and unfortunately my guide was a bit cloying.  He had the annoying habit of asking me questions, which of course would make me feel stupid by not knowing the answer, which he would then reveal with a mixture of pride and disdain.  But the Agra Fort, the other sight on our tour, was quite impressive, and worth the trip, although there is a very similar fort right in Delhi, the Red Fort, which doesn’t require a 10 hour drive.

The following day things began to turn around.  The main purpose of my trip was to travel to Pushkar where my friend Jeanne had been studying classical Odissi dance at a school established there by a friend of hers, a young woman named Colleena from Ventura in southern California.  There was to be a big performance put on by the school during my visit, and Collena’s parents had also traveled to India for the occasion.  They were staying at my hotel and Colleena had traveled from Pushkar to meet up with them, so that morning we all had breakfast and set out on a day planned by Colleena, who was of course very familiar with Delhi.   First up was a visit to a store called Fab India to buy traditional clothes to wear to the performance.  Even here, at a very upscale place in an upscale neighborhood, things were incredibly cheap;  I bought several new shirts for about $10 each.  Then to lunch at the Imperial Hotel (the food was mediocre, but the ambiance suggested India during British colonial rule), then a visit to the Red Fort, and finally, off to the train station to catch a midnight train to Azmeer, the nearest stop to Pushkar.   We shared a six bunk sleeper compartment, which wasn’t too bad, for the slow overnight trip.  

Pushkar, it turned out, was a fairly small city circling a small lake, but it is considered one of the holiest cities in India and alcohol and meat are strictly prohibited.  It is also a mecca for young hippyish tourists from all over the world, and the narrow streets are filled with gypsies and vendors offering goods and services of all types, everything from pujas to pot, all set to the constant din of honking motorcyclists.   Inside one of the many temples was the tiny Shakti Dance Studio, a buzz of activity in anticipation of the upcoming performance.  It was amazing to me to see what Colleena had created in this faraway place, where young women from all over the world were attracted to study and perform India’s traditional Odissi dance.  The current group included one from Alaska, who had traveled to India from Moscow by way of the Trans-Siberian railway, another from San Francisco, a 23 year old from Florida who had just left the air force where she had served as a part of an elite unit guarding something secret, two from Spain, one from Brazil, several authentic Indian Odissi dancers, assorted  musicians and of course the teacher, a flamboyant Indian of 53 years named Padma Sir.  I spent several leisurely days watching them rehearse for the performance and exploring Pushkar. 

The weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot, except for the day of the performance, the one day of my entire trip when it decided to rain.  A big stage had been constructed outdoors in the temple grounds.  Sound systems, television screens, chairs and decorations had been set up , and even the local tv station was going to broadcast it live.  As the 7pm start time approached I dressed in my new Indian garb and grimly walked to the temple, but the rain was still coming down.  I felt horrible thinking of the bitter disappointment that everyone would feel seeing these months of preparation come to such a sad end.  But miraculously, by 8 the rain had stopped, crowds appeared, and somehow everything was pulled together and the performance began!   Eight dances were performed.  Jeanne danced in several of them, including a duet with Colleena.  The dancers were beautiful in their traditional costumes and the performances were enchanting.  Afterwards they posed for photographers just like real celebrities.  Everything had gone off without a hitch.  As Colleena said in welcoming the crowd after the rain finally stopped, “just another day in the life of an Odissi dancer!” 

A couple of days after the performance Jeanne and I traveled to Udaipur like caged animals in a sleeper compartment of an overnight bus.  But Udaipur turned out to be a charming city with beautiful lakes and palaces, the Venice of India.  We were going to stay just one night but wound up spending a week.  Jeanne spent a lot of time shopping for traditional Indian art, and became quite adept at negotiating.  Shopkeepers were universally intimidated when she calmly insisted their price was too high.  I could never have pulled off such a feat!  We spent one afternoon riding horses through the surrounding countryside at a stable where Jackie Kennedy had once ridden.  Our favorite lunch spot had a luxurious outdoor courtyard where you could lounge on huge pillows.  There we met an unusual character who was a member of the French Cartier family and dressed like a maharaja, of which he considered himself to be a reincarnation.

To get back to Pushkar we rented a car and driver, which turned out to be by far the best way to get around.  On the way we stopped at a small town where there was a temple Jeanne wanted to visit.  It was closed, but one of the monks brought out a tray of food (prasad) which had been prepared by the holy men in the temple.  We sampled it and it was some of the best food of the trip (which was otherwise generally unmemorable).   A couple of days later I headed off by myself to the Delhi airport and returned home, aware that after initially disliking India, it had grown on me and I had actually begun to love it, so much so that the thought of returning next year seems almost inevitable!

 

Website of the Shakti School of Dance in Pushkar, India

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