Travel #10: Dubai and India January, 2018

April 7, 2020

India has never been on my bucket list. I found its history and literature fascinating, but at the same time, it felt extremely alien. So, why did I go? In December, 2017, as I contemplated my elder years, I thought about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment, “Do the things you are afraid to do.” I decided India was what I was afraid to do. I had assumed if I went to India, I would get sick because of the pollution, congestion, and health issues.  I love collecting fabrics from around the world, so when a friend shared photos of her trip, particularly of the handicrafts in Jaipur, I decided to go to India and joined an OAT trip with my friend, Suzi Tucker.

We decided to break the long flight by stopping in Dubai for a few days. Dubai is a fascinating place, having been sand dunes, pearl fishermen, and Arab desert culture until 1966 when oil was discovered. Then the desert was transformed into an oasis of business, money, steel, glass and glitz.

We could not have found a greater contrast to India. Dubai is a center of trade into and out of Asia. True, it was fascinating, but it also felt sterile, artificial, and overwhelmingly luxurious.





In retrospect, it was a good decision to visit Dubai first, we could relax after the long flight and be ready to meet the complexity of India.


We arrived in Delhi. Driving from the airport to the hotel, coal pollution affected our breathing, and five of us were sick by the time we reached our rooms, but we pushed onward. In India, we were also overwhelmed, not by glitz, but by a thousand-year-old civilization and a billion people. For the next three weeks, we visited the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra) in northern India, as well as villages and tiny hamlets. We experienced the struggles of a poor and crowded country trying to meet modern life, making important changes for the health of their people, improving economic and educational conditions, and trying to overcome the vast differences in social class. We experienced national pride, as well as religious conflicts, powerful spiritual rituals, individuals striving to change their conditions and that of others. We were struck by the contrasts in our senses – smells, sights, tastes, textures, sounds — and yet there were also silent moments of the night sky and quiet waters.

First night in Delhi hotel.

Five days in Delhi –Careening around corners in a rickshaw through crowds, pedestrians, and animals into separate Muslim and Hindu neighborhoods with brightly colored stalls and products. In contrast, we drove into New Delhi, the British section of the city with grand avenues and colonial-styled buildings.

Muslim neighborhood

Tea for sale

Hindu stall









Sikh temple

Making roti

In the Sikh Temple we participating in making rotis, traditional round flatbreads, to feed 30,000 people a day.


We then went to the museum dedicated to Mahatma Ghandi. Here he spent the last five months of his life until he was assassinated Jan. 30, 1948.

A quote from the Ghandi House:”For my material needs my village is the world. But for my spiritual needs the whole world is my village.”

Jaipur–  There is much to see in Jaipur, the Pink City, based on the color of its buildings including the Amber Fort Palace on a hilltop with its glass inlaid panels and convex mirror mosaics. Another visit was to UNESCO World Heritage site of the largest sundial in the world.                                                                                                     Jaipur is a world center of textiles, block printing, sculpture, and stone carving. It was a thrill to make a block print, which is much harder to imprint on fabric that I thought. Watching textile artists doing this work makes you realize how time consuming the process is, how carefully you have to place the block with each new color ink. I bought three wood blocks, several yards of block-printed cloths, and some dresses.























Four of us attended a home-hosted dinner-with three generations of an Indian family.The teenager, Tweety, spoke very good English, and she and her mother demonstrated Bollywood dancing.


Ranthambore National Park. Looking for a Bengal tiger Bengal tiger in a former hunting preserve of the maharajas. It was a very cold morning when we set out. We did not see a tiger, but we observed lakes with crocodiles and large birds.


It was interesting to visit a village school and meet the principal who explained how a government school works. The school children and staff were excited because they had recently received plumbing for toilets and clean water for drinking. We visited classrooms and interacted with the children who were eager to sing to us. Children sat on a dirt floor, balancing their notebook on their backpack, used as a desk. A first grader pointed out English words and spoke them enthusiastically.


Sixth graders meeting visitors.

First grader pronouncing English words.


The country is making a great effort to educate children even though supplies and facilities are in short supplies. The boys who stand out for their capacities can go  on to high school. Few of the girls have that opportunity as they are needed at home. Families who can afford it send their children to private schools which are based on the British system.

























A theme in this trip was the role of women in India today. We saw that girls were being educated in elementary school, although very few continued into high school. We visited a hamlet, a tiny village, run by the women while the men were working out in the fields. Each of us was given a paper with a food product written on it, and we had to go to the market and purchase it. Then in the hamlet, we helped prepare a meal, and discussed the women’s lives.

The women tended the animals, milked the cow, pumped water, cooked the food and organized the running of the hamlet. One woman said that she hoped the next generation would not live in such primitive conditions. She was very proud that although her life was very difficult, her daughter was in college.


In rural Rajasthan, we spent the night in an OAT camp in a tent-roof cottage for two, dined in a lovely tent, played soccer with some of the villagers, enjoyed sitting around a campfire, watching singing and dancing.

An experience that meant a great deal to me was a women’s cooperative, DONC, in which women were taught handcrafts, made stuffed toys and hand block-printed clothing and tablecloths. The women were proud of their accomplishments as they were the first women in their family to experience dignity in their work. They were excited to show us the new sewing machine that had recently arrived. I was happy to purchase some of their products. 









On our way to Agra we stopped to look down at the Abhaneri stepwell, a waterway built to provide a constant water supply to local inhabitants. As we discovered over and over again, the lack of water and toilets was a serious problem in every community.
















In contrast to that level of everyday life was our visit to the glorious Taj Mahal, built in 1631-1653 to enshrine the remains of Queen Mumtaz Mahal. It was a “Monument to Love”. It is as beautiful in real life as in the finest photographs. Its semi-translucent white marble facades are inlaid with thousands of semi-precious stones.



Another example of women empowerment was a café run by survivors of acid attacks. We heard the stories of women who had been disfigured by husbands and even by a mother-in-law. The women have struggled to overcome their scars to educate tourists and others of the status of some women in modern India. We found these women to be easy to speak with as they had taken on their task with commitment and honesty.

The high point of the trip was going to Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, on the Ganges River. I have never experienced the kind of spiritual devotion that we experienced that night. There are other cities which are pilgrimage sites of different religions, but the sounds, colors, congested narrow streets, beggars, and fire rituals were overwhelming. We went out in a small boat and could observe the sacred light ceremony and the Hindu death rituals, watched family members wrap their deceased loved one in a white cloth and lower the body onto a burning pyre. Cremation is common practice because Hindus believe that spreading their ashes in the holy waters will end their cycle of reincarnation, by gifting them with their final death. Watching the rituals from the boat gave us a front row seat of the mesmerizing chanting, fire dances, cymbols, and bells. We were each given a marigold and candle to set on the water while we meditated on someone we knew who had passed away. In the early morning, we returned to the bank of the river, walking through the frenzied energy of cars, bikes, tuk-tuks, pedestrians, cows and beggars jostling to get a few coins.

Night experience on the Ganges River.




Morning view of life along the Holy Ganges River.








































We visited the Buddhist temple and Sarnath Museum where Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon to his disciples and we observed some of the great treasures of Indian Buddhist art.


We walked around the grounds of the Kajaraho temples with their sculpted friezes of men and women indulging in intimate sexual acts. This was an eye opener.


Our trip ended in Delhi for a farewell dinner, sitar concert, and surprise experience when the women in the shop brought saris for us to try on. It was a lovely finale.


















It is important to say that my concerns about traveling to India were valid. I did get sick, saw a doctor, and over time slowly began to improve, but I feel as if I experienced India through a haze of a bronchial infection. I had brought an R95 mask with me and definitely used it. Suzy and I had signed up for a five-day extension into southern India, and I was very much looking forward to it. However, Suzy who had been well, while I had been ill, was now getting sick, and I was  still recovering. We decided we needed to return home. So, we did.

Am I glad I went to India? Yes, will I return? Probably not. Of all my travels, India did turn out to be the most difficult. It was not just because I was sick, there was more. The contrast between rich and poor, beauty and ugliness, luxurious living of the rajahs and the upper classes, as well as the dung coated huts of the common people, the negative attitude toward women, the ancient spiritual ways of devotion side by side with modern technology — all need to be absorbed more slowly than dipping in as a tourist. I know that we only saw a part of India, and I regret we didn’t get to go south. However, many countries, including our own, have such strong contrasts, but India is much more complex due to its age, size, and history.

What I carry most strongly from the trip was the privilege of visiting an ancient civilization that has continued to this day, the devotional attitude that is so different from western spirituality, and the individuals I met. I return home with many questions and much to think about.