my jaunts: india

the market side of the taj mahal – stunning colors.

over a year has officially passed since my last post, and unsurprisingly it has been a full 19 months!  my son is now 22 months old, and i’m back in the swing of things at work.  i’ve also traveled a fair amount since February 2016 and it saddens me to think that I haven’t had a chance to write down my memories.  one trip in particular was a completely unique and unforgettable experience: india.

the stunning taj mahal!

i’ve always been intrigued by india.  a country full of intensity in color, sound, smell, flavor, people, and spirituality has always enticed me.  thanks to alanis morrissette and liz gilbert, i just knew i would arrive in india and find the clarity for which i’ve searched all these years.  so when an invitation at work to teach training in india popped up in my inbox, i pushed aside thoughts of the logistical nightmare of a two-week trip (that required me to leave my 10-month old behind – i mean, honestly), and eagerly replied yes to the opportunity.

visitors at the taj mahal in ALL OF THE COLORS!

enough time has passed where i can say with much confidence that i would return, and i would return with excitement.  but the trip at the time was a tough one, despite the comforts of business travel that allowed me to fly and stay in significantly more comfort than a personal trip would have allowed.

welcome to india! lush landscapes, wonderful people, rickshaws, colonial architecture: i fell in love with this country.

there are many reasons not to go to india.  first, i had to obtain a business visa, the process of which is confusing and non-sensical, even with my exceptional organizational skills (not-so-humble brag).  it took me almost a week to properly fill out the forms, obtain the proper approvals, drive to the visa location in houston, and ensure my passport with said visa would arrive back in time to book my flight.  also, india is generally not safe for foreign women to travel alone.  i was required to travel with a firm-appointed driver, and not allowed to walk alone to a restaurant down the street from my five-star hotel (which had a gate manned by a guard who checked under the car and in the trunk).  additionally, depending on the destination, india is very hot (turns out bangalore was not, but more on that later), and women must dress more conservatively (not necessarily a “con” but certainly an adjustment for this texas girl who is used to shorts in 90+ degree weather).  and I would be remiss if i did not mention the driving, which involves no lanes, more cars than you’ve ever seen (unless, of course, you’ve been to india), and a complete disregard for traffic laws (though i did witness nine lanes of highway traffic come to a complete halt for a pedestrian pulling a large wooden tea wagon).

a typical traffic jam in delhi, full of bumper-to-bumper cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, and hand-pulled wagons.

in general, india is just tough if you’re used to the united states.  it’s a developing country and many of the things we take for granted (e.g. continuous electricity, drinkable water, electronic documents) just aren’t always around.  there was definitely a point in the middle of the second week when i was weary from travel, which was an unfamiliar feeling for me during a trip abroad (travel is literally my favorite thing to do).

i adored all of the hand-painted trucks in india! i saw this one in agra.

all that being said, the pros to visiting india definitely outweigh the cons.  india is an experience more so than simply a destination.  its people, who i learned from my students, are warm, inviting, empathic, helpful, and extremely interested in making friends.  my students’ families cooked dinner for me and my students would sing songs for me to share their culture.  the food was fantastic (kebabs! banta!), the colors were as intensely bright as i had hoped, and the country was lush in vegetation and natural beauty.

an upscale (and adult) twist on the popular children’s fruit drink, banta. so delicious! india knows flavors.

i started in bangalore, located in southern india on the deccan plateau, and enjoyed a drive around town in the wildly southern california-esque weather.  my driver, raj, was a treasure trove of information and drove me to an outdoor market where locals shopped for food while cows lounged all around (when we pulled up to the market and a cow was outside my door, raj encouraged me to get out.  “but are they dangerous?” i asked.  “sometimes!” was his reply.).

a woman and a cow outside of a neighborhood market in bangalore. cows are everywhere!

from bangalore i traveled to agra, the home of the taj mahal.  it is difficult to describe how painstakingly detailed the construction of the mausoleum is, and the intricacies of the marble work reminded me of the carvings of the al hambra in grenada, spain.  the town of agra was worth seeing in its own right, as our van passed a flurry of activity of markets, people, cows, bright orange buildings with shaded openings, families stacked on mopeds, musicians, more people, shops, homes, monkeys scurrying atop buildings, more cows, more people, bicycles.  it seemed like the true india that i was missing from my five-star gated hotels.

a closer look at the intricate inlaid gems (there are rubies!) in the marble of the taj mahal.

after agra, we drove to delhi, where my husband (oh yes, did i mention my unbelievable husband traveled for two full days to join me for four days over a long weekend?) convinced me to take a bike ride through old delhi.  old delhi is literally the oldest part of delhi, a part of town full of markets each specific to meat, spices, marigolds, and fruit.  i was skeptical when we arrived at the crack of dawn in a seemingly unsafe area, and was even more skeptical after we signed waivers and pedaled down the butcher street past a minivan open to display inside a mystery carcass for sale.  and the skepticism peaked when we turned down a narrow alley, i lost my footing, and fell into a giant heap of trash (cutting my leg in the process).  i believe i cried, swore, and yelled at my husband all in one breath.  the tour guide motioned me to the front of the group so she could keep an eye on me (i was easily the worst cyclist of the group), and we continued on.

an early morning street scene in old delhi – so much going on here, including a potential electrical hazard.

from there, i am not exaggerating when i write that the bike tour of old delhi was one of the most incredible things i have done in my entire life.  my entire life!  it was a scene that i have only seen on television and have never experienced.  the smells and the colors and the bustle of people was unbelievable.  we passed markets and vendors and mosques and temples and soup kitchens and luxury hotels.  we stopped at a road-side cart selling chai tea to passersby, and against my better judgment i drank it (i was assured it was boiled and would therefore be fine, and it was!) and it was delicious.  it is with great regret that i did not have the foresight to purchase a go pro camera for my helmet, as my clinging to the handlebars did not allow for many photos.  we climbed to the top of a haveli to overlook the city and later ended our tour in the center of town eating delicious meats at karim’s.  it was marvelous.

living quarters above the spice market in old delhi. the spices were so potent that we had to cover our mouths to keep from choking as we climbed the stairs!

the words here don’t do it justice, but if you remember anything, remember that despite all the difficulties, just go.  it’s worth it.  i hope i see you there.

to read: in light of india by octavio paz, along the ganges by ilija trojanow

to watch: idiot abroad in india, slumdog millionaire, any bollywood movie

to visit next time: jaipur, goa

driving into agra from delhi.

jaunt chats: wherever you go, there you are

Just a day in England

Just a day in England

how delighted i was when an old friend from oklahoma wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed jaunt. it has been so much fun for me to write, and sometimes i just assume i’m the only one reading. kelly embodies the true spirit of jaunt, finding adventure wherever life takes her. she offered to write about living in a foreign land, as this is something about which she knows quite a bit. i was completely unprepared, though, for the beautiful post she returned to me last week. so perfectly worded and honest, please join me in convincing her to start her own blog. i want to read more.

India- riding an elephant on my birthday!

India- riding an elephant on my birthday!

“Having now lived, worked and volunteered in the US, Czech Republic, UK, India and Canada and travelled to 35 countries here is what I know. Not much. The more you learn the more you know how very little you can really know. I may have a Master’s but I’ve learned much more from experience and people I’ve really connected with the world round. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and sometimes I think back to the girl I was (our entire body – cells and skin – is replaced every 7 years so am I even really the same person? Just a thought… I would have been thrilled and delighted to hear that I would travel to and volunteer in India on my own, study at the University of London, marry my own Mr. Darcey and travel to 35 countries. How did I do that, it’s magic really. How did I get myself here? I often think… what else might be possible?

My husband, Mark and I at Kent Castle

My husband, Mark and I at Kent Castle

When you live in a different culture you are changed. You can never un-know the precise detail with which the English use our shared language. I never used the word pedantic before moving there. You start to see your own culture as outsiders do. This can be enlightening and uncomfortable. You could always pick out the Americans on the tube as they speak in a tone 8 octaves above every other sane person on the train. Was I ever that loud? Did I sound that brash? Yes. After 7 years in the UK trying to assimilate, taking tea, donning my vintage frocks and developing the usual pint after every imaginable activity (Film and a pint, jog and a pint, cycle ride and a pint , shopping and a pint… etc.) the foreign became the norm as did the aspects I adored about British culture. The humour interjected at every single possible opportunity, the non- PC flirting that on a good day boosts your self-esteem (it’s not doing any harm is it eh?) on a bad day it re-invigorated my feminism! When you fall into a pattern of life, the seasonal norms that are comforting, eating cream teas in pub gardens in summer, heavy pies and roast dinners in Autumn and Winter, picking up local venison from the country estate nearby, the noise of pheasant hunting in the distance on country walks and knowing that Christmas starts Dec 1st with heaps of minced pies, chocolates and brandy butter. It is expected and very well accepted to gain 5 pounds in December. Normal. You’ll need the fat to keep warm in poorly insulated old housing! I LOVE this mind set, much healthier than our skinny = successful, good, worthy, pretty, intelligent culture in the US. There were aspects of British life I could never quite adjust to and ultimately I knew I wasn’t happy to stay there forever even though I did get my British citizenship.

Citizenship Ceremony - Bristol England 2011

Citizenship Ceremony – Bristol England 2011

The daily bureaucracy is very trying. You think getting a correct electric meter reading is something fairly simple. Think again. Setting up bank accounts, converting your driver’s license, parking could all be quite stressful. Hence the frequent pub visits and tea times, but therein lays my revelation. In order to enjoy the lovely, (magical even) parts of living in England you just had to put up with and to really hit the nail on the head, joke about the utter pain of existing and operating in the UK. Sweet and sour if you will. The British have made an art of making fun of their own national short comings ( and everyone else’s) Something the US could really learn from. They could learn from our DVLA offices though, it’s really not that hard to process a driving license.

on holiday in Scotland March 2011 (very ill with morning sickness!)

on holiday in Scotland March 2011 (very ill with morning sickness!)

I now feel not quite American, not quite British, although there was quite a lot of proving, taking the citizenship exam. So I figured why not try being Canadian next? I am only 11 months in to living and working in Canada and I am reserving final judgements and anthropological assessments…

West Coast of Canada since 2013

West Coast of Canada since 2013

My shorter time in the Czech Republic was also trying (sobbing trying to speak broken Czech) and enriching (preforming with a folk dancing troupe in a 90 year old dress in the National Ball) in hind sight.

I lived in Prague 7 in an old villa, previously occupied by communist party officials. The family was welcoming in a Czech sort of way, which looks very different than an American welcome. I knew I was welcome because the house parents were often in their underwear on Saturday mornings! I knew I was welcome because I was invited to go drag car racing on an ex-communist air base along with the whole family. Cultural acceptance and immersion means getting out of your comfort zone and into a racing car with a full face helmet on. The area had become a nature reserve with high radiation levels in all the wildlife due to the poor management of military land. What a poignant way to learn this with deer racing across the drag strip.

Bavaria for a friend's wedding

Bavaria for a friend’s wedding

I found myself on trams out to the suburbs getting lost, trying to find niche folk dancing clubs and getting the oddest reception upon my arrival. Why do you want to do this? There was always genuine surprise at anyone’s interest in 1.the Czech Republic 2. Traditional dance. Cultural Anthropology was my (very useful) undergraduate major. I developed a close knit group of Czech friends through this dance and learned people’s personal stories and histories of the Velvet Revolution. There is so much more to Prague and the Czech nation than the normal 3 day tour can show you.

Wine Country - Kelowna British Columbia with my daughter Sasha

Wine Country – Kelowna British Columbia with my daughter Sasha

I suppose the only real lessons from these diverse, amazing, uncomfortable, confusing, heart wrenching and soul connecting, dancing in circles with strangers until they are your genuine friends moments and collections of moments that make up our utterly messy and beautiful lives is that everywhere you go there is something exotic. Everyone you meet may be on your wave length, even the hardened nuns I worked with in India- I softened them up in the end! Every place can be sacred, every field golden, every mountain a triumph. If you want to go, go. If you want to be a new person, you might already be. You can be a tourist in your own town; you can discover a new dish or shop or park in Rome or in the next county and it’s all part of being truly alive.”

Kelly Schaecher – Vancouver, Canada