The past three days have been completely surreal. I'm obviously still feeling sad about saying goodbye to so many people in Nepal, but India has been a very happy experience.
On Saturday afternoon we departed from our house in Kathmandu and headed to the airport for our hour-long flight to Delhi. When we tried to check our bags, we were told by the agent that we were a combined 10 kilograms over the weight limit and that we would have to pay $50. In the five seconds it took for Anna and I to agree to pay the extra fee, another agent (in a suit, not a uniform) told us the actual cost is only $40.
I opened my wallet to see if I had cash or a credit card, and he asked how much cash I have. I told him only $27 US, so I would need to use my credit card. He then instructed me to hand him the cash, put it in his pocket, and told us we were finished. So Anna and were basically unintentional participants in an international airport bribery scheme. That’s a first.
After waiting several hours for our flight in a 3-gate terminal playing host to what seemed like 10 million departures, we finally made it to the airport in Delhi. I can say without exaggeration that it is one of the cleanest, most organized, easiest airports to navigate that I have ever visited. What a change from hours earlier!
Our hotel, the airport Radison Blu, had arranged for a driver to pick us up. And the car had air conditioning!! And seat belts!!! It felt very luxurious. After spending a month practically camping indoors, Anna and I were so excited to get to our hotel and find that it had soft beds and hot water, two things that we went without (for the most part) for almost a month. The lobby was beautiful, the rooms were clean and free of bugs, and the Internet worked consistently. It was liked we had flown to a different world, not a different country.
Sunday morning we returned to the airport for a flight to Jodhpur. Our friend and colleague, Rahul, and his wife have been so generous and basically helped us plan our entire India trip. We didn’t fully understand what that meant until now, and we are so beyond grateful to them!
When we arrived in Jodhpur, another air conditioned car with a very nice driver was waiting for us. We left the airport and drove for only a few minutes before stopping outside of a building that appeared to either be a home compound or a business. Turns out - it was both.
An unknown fellow came out and spoke to the driver, who then told us (nicely) to get out of the car and follow the other guy. At this point in our travels, we are used to unexpected things happening, so we just went along with it.
|The beautiful sitting room in Mr. Bhandari's home|
It turns out, we were at the home and (one of many) business of Rahul's wife's uncle, a lovely, friendly man named Mr. Bhandari. Rahul had told us that we likely wouldn't have a chance to meet the uncle because he is very busy. But there he was, literally only minutes after we arrived in Jodhpur, giving us a tour of his 30-room home and having his friend show us around the beautiful furniture showrooms on the ground level.
During our tour, there was a very unusual incident when we walked outside in which we were greeted by a parade of 10 singing Indian drag queens. I wish I had my camera at that moment!
|Palace made of stone|
After our tour, Mr. Bhandari invited us to stay for lunch. It was so cool sitting in this beautiful home as almost 30 family members floated in and out. Extended families in India often live together, so this giant home holds his parents, brothers, nephews and nieces, kids, grand kids, in-laws, etc. The food was the best I've had in a month and he was such a gracious host. Oh, and did I mention that Mr. Bhandari owns Fort Khejarla, a fort that was renovated into an amazing hotel, which we had the amazing fortune to stay in for two day? More on that in a bit.
After we departed Mr. Bhandari’s home, we drove for a quick sightseeing stop at a nearby palace. The entire palace is made of gorgeous stone, and it was pretty breathtaking to see it in person. We headed out and made the hour an half journey through the countryside to Fort Khejarla.
The fort is magical. It is one of the most enchanting, exotic places I have ever been. If you have seen the movie Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this is what the cast was hoping for when they moved to India. The photos really don’t do it justice. It is a serene, beautiful, historic fort in the middle of a small village in the countryside.
I feel so honored and in awe to have had the opportunity to stay there.
When we checked in, the sweet guy at the front desk, Mr. Dungar, kept asking if we were with a group. When we pointed to our names on the short reservation list, he became suddenly excited and said that the owner had personally called to make our reservation. We were shown to a pretty, clean, modern room. It was situated in a tiny courtyard, and the courtyard had a view of the fort tower.
Anna and I wandered the property for a while taking pictures (well over 300 in India alone so far) and admiring the beauty.
|Rooftop at sunset|
|Love the stone and archways|
|Glowing grand entrance|
|Outdoor lounging area|
|It is even more amazing in person|
|View from the pool|
|The red portion at the top of the fort? We had no idea that was soon to be our room|
During our walk, we were contacted by the manager of the hotel. He asked if we liked our room and if we were comfortable, which we obviously said we were. He then told us that he would like to move us to a fort suite. He kept repeating the same thing, but we didn't know what he meant, so we asked to be shown.
UMMMMM...they moved us into a giant suite, which occupies the top of the tower. So the beautiful tower with sweeping ceilings because our hotel room. Unreal.
|Our amazing room|
|View from the main window|
|Gorgeous doors to our suite|
The only down-side to the entire stay was that pigeons liked to hang out on the windowsill of our room, and I could hear them scratching at the window at night. My friends and family know I have a thing against birds, so hearing their creepy little feet at the window was slightly unpleasant.
We decided to treat ourselves to a $30 massage in the hotel spa, and it was probably one of the best I have ever had. Maybe because I was physically and emotionally drained from the days preceding India, or maybe because my masseuse was actually that good.
As we walked to dinner at the hotel restaurant later that night, we were stopped by a magician who was set up in the courtyard. He performed a 20-minute magic show just for us. It was like everything we did that day felt more and more like we were living in a movie.
|The magician and his assistant|
All of our meals at the fort were delicious. They only served vegetarian food (yes, I eat vegetables now), and everything we ordered tasted fresh and well-made. The chef was constantly coming by our table to make sure we were enjoying our meal.
Monday morning we woke up early for breakfast, which Mr. Bhandari suggested we eat at a nearby temple. Our ride was supposed to pick us up at 8 a.m., but he was 15 minutes late. Why? Because the camel was still being decorated.
|Our ride arriving to pick us up|
That’s right. We took a camel cart to breakfast. The camel driver was a very friendly man who treated the camel with the same love and affection that we treat our dogs, and he led us through the village for a good 45 minutes before heading to the temple. As we rode through the village, children shouted, smiled, waved, and chased our cart. They were so excited to see us. The staff informed us that the villagers enjoy seeing “foreigners” because not very many travel into Khejarla.
|The staff at the fort put down blankets and pillows so that our ride would be more comfortable|
|Village children running after our camel cart. They followed us, laughing and playing, for several minutes|
Even though we didn’t speak the same language, the camel driver obviously took a liking to us, as he wheeled us past his home and introduced us to his wife, children, and grandchildren. He was so proud to show them off.
|Proud to show off his grandbaby|
The village is exactly what I had imagined - quaint, quiet, and colorful. Even in a remote village, the woman are dressed impeccably. They were all dressed in beautiful saris and wearing ornate jewelry. Hollywood starlets have nothing on the glamour of Indian women. It is so common for them to wear so much jewelry that our camel driver actually commented on the fact that Anna and I wore none because we stood out as being different in that way.
We made it to the temple, which is several hundred years old and built atop a rock formation. Mr. Dungar and another staff member drove out on a motorcycle and set up a picnic for us at the top of the temple overlooking the countryside. Never would I ever have imagined having an experience like that. The caretaker of the temple even brought us a plate of desserts as a measure of goodwill.
|View from the temple|
|Our picnic spot|
|Anna and me with Mr. Dungar. He gave us blessing when we arrived at the temple, hence the orange on our foreheads.|
I have traveled to several countries and met a lot of people, but I can say with confidence that I have never met a nicer people overall than the people of India. Their kindness and hospitality is so genuine. When they stare, they do it with a smile and are happy to wave and greet us, even while driving down the road.
We rode in the camel cart back to the fort and spent a couple of hours sitting by the gorgeous pool reading our books. We were wearing our appropriate swim attire, of course - me in yoga pants and an oversized t-shirt and Anna in a t-shirt and her brother’s board shorts. This is a conservative country, after all!
At 5 p.m. we had another visit from our friend, the camel. This time, we had arranged to take a camel ride outside of the village. So, for the second time on this trip (the first being an elephant), Anna and I ended up riding on the back of a giant animal.
|Giant animal riding, round II|
|Surprisingly more steady than an elephant|
|View from the top|
The camel driver led us through the village again and out into the nearby countryside. We must have been gone a solid hour when we reached a small stone area guarded by a single man. We dismounted the camel (no easy feat!) at the instruction of our guide and followed him through a very tiny door, which was probably only three feet high. We descended down some stairs and found ourselves in a natural cave that had been transformed into a small temple.
Inside the cave, our guide began talking away and clearly explaining our surroundings. Unfortunately, he only speaks in Hindi. For 10 minutes. So we stood there, smiled, nodded, and occasionally said, “Ah, yes,” even though we had absolutely no idea what was going on.
Anna and I later laughed at the fact that a month ago we would never have followed a stranger into the wilderness and down dark stairs into a deserted cave, but here it is totally normal.
Just before we got back on the camel to head to the hotel, a sheep/goat herder passed with his giant flock. Apparently our camel driver and the herder are friends, because they stopped to chat for a minute. I couldn’t resist and asked if I could take a picture, and the herder kindly obliged (bear in mind, “asked” means showing him the camera and asking with a smile, “Okay?” to which he responded with an affirmative nod). I showed him the picture on my camera as soon as I had taken it and was surprised by his reaction. His eyes lit up and welled with tears, he began to laugh and smile, and clapped his hands. He said “thank you” several times. Based on his reaction, I think that may have been the first time he had seen his photo on a digital camera. Such a special moment.
|Tending his flock|
|A beautiful photo of friends. If you look at their eyes, you can see how happy they are.|
We rode our camel back to the hotel at sunset and passed through the village. This time, it wasn’t just the children who wanted to say hello. Adults were coming out of their homes to watch us pass by, and several men and women approached our camel driver and asked him to momentarily stop so that they could reach up and shake our hands.
On one hand, it felt very uncomfortable to have so much attention. On the other hand, it supports my feeling that people in India are friendly, happy people, and I am honored that they wanted to welcome me to their village.
|Children waving as we move through the streets|
|Traffic jam. Totally normal.|
This morning, Tuesday, we drove to another giant fort for a bit of sightseeing before stopping back at Mr. Bhandari’s home to say goodbye and thank him for the lovely stay in his hotel. I loaded several of the photos from my camera onto his computer, about which he seemed very pleased. He really is such a nice man.
We boarded our return flight to Delhi, which was far less pleasant than our first flight due to seat neighbors who clearly didn’t care for personal hygiene, and arrived back in Delhi just a couple of hours ago. We have checked in to a clean, modern hotel and will be exploring the city tomorrow.
India has been on my to-do list for ages, but somehow it was overshadowed by the trip to Nepal. Now that I’m here, I can see that I was justified in my desire to visit in the first place. It is colorful, cultural, beautiful, and interesting. And the people here make the experience that much more valuable.
|Woman dressed in bright colors watch outside the fort as children prepare for a festival parade. Anna and I heard the music from inside the fort and walked out to watch the festivities.|