This is a photo taken on the top deck of the Taj Mahal. There is a large white marbel minaret on the right and people sitting in the shade against the marbel wall. The red sandstone fort is in the distance.

White marble minaret on the top deck of the Taj Mahal.

India has some of the strangest and most beautiful temples, palaces, forts and tombs we’ve had the pleasure of seeing.  Yet we note, that Indians only keep up, maintain, paint and revere ancient buildings from the dead past.  They have a different standard for buildings they live in.  Standards for building, zoning, upkeep and maintenance of new structures are much lower.

It really bothered us to drive for 6 hours in one day, and see nothing but unrelieved squalor, people colorfully dressed in saris, but walking through mounds of trash and garbage right outside their front doors or those of the shops.  We saw all the animals munching on garbage.  All the animals are treated like pigs, whether they are to be revered as gods and not eaten (cows, and pigs are not eaten), or chickens, goats, camels, dogs, sheep.  It turned my stomach and it’s hard now to look at meat without thinking of garbage.

And it doesn’t exactly put you in a festive mood to realize that one billion people here are living lives that don’t seem particularly worthwhile, suffering daily hunger, disease, lack of basic toilet/water/infrastructure, having to submit to daily corruption and hassles.  Is life worth living in India?

Our driver constantly talked about karma, and the need to give to the poor.  I started buying Indian products, but my suitcase broke.  Then, I lost the desire to shoot photos, or to buy anything at all, and resisted the urge to shop, because of constant pressure and hassling by guides, driver and touts.  After making our way across northern India, I started realizing how little I really need…

I didn’t need my shoes or slippers – but someone in India did, so I gave them away.

I didn’t need jewelry, so I gave that away.

I didn’t need all my clothing, so I gave away turtleneck, t-shirt, robe, plastic raincoats.

I didn’t need all my toiletries, so I gave many away.

I didn’t need the rest of the food and cutlery, so I gave those away too.

I put all the things into the broken suitcase and gave it to Raj, the driver, who promised that the poor family he knows in Delhi can fix the suitcase zipper and make use of the things.

What do I really need – nothing more than pure water, fresh air, basic clothing and medication, and delicious, nutritious food, a clean, safe roof over my head, and a great companion and family.

And so I came back from India lighter than before.

In India we heard an analogy by way of explanation of how Indians can live in such a pigsty without going crazy.  “Like the white pure lotus flower, they stand in fetid water and produce a beautiful flower all the same.”  The Hindu ideas underlying this statement are foreign to me.  I could not relate to the Indian tolerance for filth.

But we were able to appreciate the sublime monuments, ambrosially delicious food and the kindness of some of the Indians we met along the way.  Like Nagendra Singh explaining about tigers and cooking as if he had nothing better in the world to do than spend hours patiently answering my questions.

Like the flirty smiles of three 14-year old boys who waved kisses at us from their motorcycle…the chef at the Tiger Reserve winking as he prepared our demonstration meal, the solemn explanations of the Kashmiri rug merchants as we sat for hours in their shop talking as human beings and not as customer and merchant….

Cities and towns are teeming; Indians are rushing about; they’re honking (“Horn please,” implore signs on the back of the trucks”), they’re clamoring, they’re impatient to get ahead.  We found that to enjoy India, you have to get the Indians to…slow…down…look you in the eye, see you as a human being…and not as something to be milked or used. Then the gap is bridged.

The Hansen sisters had a total blast on our trip to India.   We constantly spoke about seeing the South of India, but unless it is cleaner than the North, it’s not on!

Claudia and Gail

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