This is an effort to give a brief resume of the 5 1/2 months that we spent in India….

We quickly found India to be a country of great diversity – in terms of wealth, class and caste structure, religion, language, wildlife… Our first introduction to India was the capital of Delhi, where we found the life full of different colors, sights, and smells. Bicycle and auto rickshaws shared the crowded and dirty streets of Old Delhi with cows, humped bulls, buffalo, donkeys, roosters, monkeys, and even elephants! New Delhi, meanwhile, had wide, uncluttered streets lined with upscale shopping, leafy trees, and mansions for the political elite.

Next came Agra, home of the celebrated Agra Fort and the world-renowned Taj Mahal – the symbol of India. We covered the 100 mi. between Delhi and Agra by train, which was a real experience. People pushed and shoved to get in the train while others tried their hardest to escape. Heavy bags went flying over the heads of the passengers, hitting some in the head and almost knocking them to the ground. Benches that should have normally held three people held twice that many or more. Men sold soup and tea in the cars, while young children crawled on the dirty floor, begging for money. Sacred cows walked across the platforms and the tracks in some of the stations.

We spent approximately six weeks in Rajasthan, in northern India, home of the celebrated warrior Rajputs. From peaceful wildlife reserves to noisy towns that were in the middle of election campaigns and religious festivals, we passed through them all. Known as the “Pink City,” Jaipur was pretty with its salmon-colored buildings, while Udaipur, “the Venice of the Orient” was beautiful and romantic with its abundance of palaces and temples. The Muslim pilgrimage city of Ajmer surprised us with its lakeside white marble pavilions, the sparkly, “Golden City” of its Jain temple (better than anything Disney could ever conjure up!), and its Dargah tomb dedicated to a Muslim saint. So many pilgrims were at this site that it quite took us aback, and religious fervor was very evident. It was interesting to note how the Indian Muslims have incorporated Hindu customs and religious rites into their own religious observances.

Ajmer was not the only religious city that we visited. Just overtop of the next mountain was the town of Pushkar, known as the “Holy Town” to the Hindus. Bathing in the Pushkar Lake is supposed to give one salvation, and on the last day of the Full Moon festival of the annual Pushkar Fair (the world’s largest camel fair), over 600,000 pilgrims bathed in the small lake. The small town has several hundred temples – from the very small (a couple of feet wide and long) to the large.

As for other religious sites, we visited a temple complex near the Pink City on the last day of a month-long Hindu festival, and thousands upon thousands bathed in the basins that day. People lined the path up the mountainside to the Sun Temple, selling seeds and nuts for offerings to the gods, as well as bananas and flowers. Hundreds of monkeys lived in the woods, feeding on food that people offered them, and also the food that was left for the gods!

We were on the opposite side of India when the tsunami struck, so we didn’t witness the destruction that was caused in the southeast. But from where we were (climbing up a mountain to visit a mountaintop temple with 200,000 Hindu pilgrims on a Full Moon Day), it felt as if we were struck by a tidal wave of people. The crowds were so large that pedestrian traffic police were called in to control the wave of people, and the concentration of people gave a whole new meaning to the word “crowd.” At the top of the mountain, after climbing briskly for 2 hours, we were stopped dead in our tracks by a 4-hr. line – just to climb the final 150 steps! Soni and Sunil, the brother and sister pair from our special family from Godhra, took us with them on the pilgrimage and explained the different customs and religious observances.

Talking about Soni and Sunil, we met them on Christmas Eve (our Christmas gift), and their family took us to church on Christmas morning and made our holiday a special and memorable one. The church experience was interesting, too. Giraffes, elephants, and leopards filled the manger scene, “Happy Birthday” balloons hung from the ceiling of the church, and the choir sang Christmas carols mostly in the Gujarati language, but also in English. The ambiance outside of the church resembled a fair, with men selling balloons and drinks, while people sat around gabbing in the plastic chairs set up for the occasion, instead of listening to the sermon.

Although we stayed mostly in hotels in India (cheap, at an average of between $2.25 – $3.50 per double room), we also camped a bit (especially on the western coast), and we also stayed with a few families. In contrast to other countries we had traveled through, we stayed with upper-middle to upper class families in India. The experiences were very interesting and because we spoke the same language, we had real exchanges with them. Most of them were very curious about our countries, asking questions such as, “Do you have a love marriage ?” “Is it important for women to wear gold jewellery?” (the Indians were always very curious, because I don’t wear jewellery when I bike); “Do you wear make-up at home?” “Do you have a sari ?” (questions from the women). From the men came questions such as, “How is the US different from India?” “Are people more open about sex in the US?” “Do people have sex before marriage?” and “Do people spit in the US?” (a large majority of the men spit in India! – it comes from chewing tobacco).

We stayed with a couple of “kings,” and met several others (before India became the world’s largest democracy less than 60 years ago, it was a conglomeration of princely states – under British rule. Many people still refer to themselves as “king” of a village or city.) One that we stayed with was very gracious, very hospitable and friendly and generous, even letting us stay in his “Sunday Farmhouse” for two days, all alone (king and queen for two days!) with two families of servants to cook meals for us. His house, with its luxurious carpet of grass and tall palm trees, was a haven of peace and tranquility away from the noise and pollution of the main road. The other “king” that we stayed with was a bit less gracious, waving his arms about wildly and yelling all night long, “I’m a King! I’m a King! I’m rich! My money comes from the gods!” and giving continual high-fives to his friend.

Though India is modernizing (especially in information technology), it still clings tightly to its religious and social traditions. Evidence of this can be seen everywhere. The most obvious is in its caste and class structure. There are four main castes and several hundred sub-castes (the “Untouchables” is not considered a caste). Every caste is distinct and separate from the others, and each has special jobs or special duties that it performs. The rules are very rigid (they originally come from Hindu ritual texts, and the rules cover many things from marriage to what one may or may not eat). We saw the wedding procession of a maharaja (princely ruler) in Bombay. As tradition dictates, he sits in a chariot and proceeds through the street for several hours, before arriving at the place where he will meet his bride. This serves the purpose of introducing himself to the neighborhood before his marriage. A Hindu marching band led the way, and close friends and family members danced to the music in front of his chariot, lit by chandeliers that men carried on their heads. The chariot was driven by four white horses and covered in hundreds of colorful flower garlands. The young man himself wore a silk turban threaded with gold and a huge sapphire and diamond necklace.

Which leads me to Mumbai (Bombay) itself. We spent some time in this port city on the western coast in January, and the thing that strikes one immediately is the overwhelming contrasts that make up the city – especially in terms of wealth. For example, we watched this fabulously wealthy maharaja parade through the streets behind his four white horses, decked out with fabulous jewellery, and alight in front of the Taj Mahal hotel, the most expensive in India. Just across the street from the hotel, only a 15-second walk away, lie homeless people sleeping on the street, with nothing more than the clothes that are on their backs.

Bombay has the world’s second-largest ghetto (the largest is in Lagos, in Africa), and we biked through what seemed an interminably long line of run-down shacks, made of tin and plastic. The huts lined the sidewalks for miles and miles on end, and those were the lucky ones. Some didn’t even have that. They just slept on the streets or in doorways. Naked babies hung in mosquito nets from tree branches.

We biked south from Bombay towards Goa, and that was a real treat. It took longer than expected because of the yoyo up and down between the mountain chains (up 3000 ft., then down to sea level, then up again, and down again). Also, we got a bit lost and ended up crossing the mountain chains back and forth instead of taking the coastal route as far as possible – an impassible river blocked our way, and forced us inland. But the scenery and the experience were fabulous. In fact, because of the mountains, we were almost alone on the road. There was another parallel highway farther inland that ran through flatter terrain, so the trucks and other vehicles preferred that road. We biked for days at a time without passing villages of more than 150 people. Hard to find food that way because there were no stores, but at least the people were always happy to fill up our water bottles! This stretch of road was beautiful, and we even spent two days by the coast. We came upon a small village that had a deserted beach (clean! which is rare for India), warm water, and hundreds of palm trees. We took advantage of the peace and solitude, which is not always easy to find in this country.

This part of the country, on the west coast, has an infinite number of coconuts, mango trees, and palm trees. We came across less wild animals than in the North (especially Rajasthan), where we saw monkeys, buffalo, cows, and camels everyday (and sometimes snakes, bears, and elephants, too!). The last monkey that we saw was stuck up in a tree, being chased by two wild dogs below….

We spent several weeks in Goa, which seemed to me to be “little Europe,” filled with vacationing Europeans who had come for the sun and the famous Goan rave parties. Most of Goa was extremely touristy, but we chose to stay on the outskirts of a little town in the house of an Indian family who had rooms for rent. As the Europeans practiced yoga and nudism on the beaches, the Indian men tended to the fields or worked as fishermen, while the women mashed spices into a fish curry daily by using a large stone bowl and slab, braided palm leaves for their houses, and also worked in the fields.

From Goa, we took an overnight bus to Hampi, a pilgrimage center that is the site of dozens upon dozens of still-extant temples, gateways, and other monuments – a magnificent testament to one of India’s greatest kingdoms and one of India’s greatest concentrations of temples and wealth.

After leaving Goa, we took a 16-hr. bus ride back to Mumbai, then a 35-hr. train ride across the sub-continent to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal in the northeast corner of India. We stayed with a retired couple for one week (we had met them in Turkey last summer and they had invited us to stay with them when we reached Kolkata). We weren’t sorry that we had taken them up on their generous offer of hospitality. They were very well-educated, had traveled extensively, had lived half their lives between Singapore and Hong Kong, and were very open-minded. Conversation was lively and enlightening. They served us fabulous home-made Indian food every day – what a treat!! And how we enjoyed staying in a real house for an entire week, after having been on the road for the last 1 ½ years!!

Our stay in Kolkata was memorable for falling during the festival of Holi, when Indians celebrate the coming of Spring by throwing colored paint on each other! What a crazy festival! What a crazy day! It gave everyone an excuse to be kids! Happy Holi!

Many people – especially those that have been to India – are in amazement that we stayed such a long time in India. Most travelers like India, but many end up leaving after a while because of the hardships that one encounters, the sights and smells that are sometimes hard to take, and the poverty that is sometimes shocking (especially for those Westerners that have never experienced or even imagined such poverty before…). And it is true that some things are difficult to deal with. Many people on the streets (especially in Delhi and Bombay) have deformed or missing limbs, a lot of the people are very skinny (20% of the population is under-nourished, including a large percentage of children), the malnourished and sickly dogs in India give a new meaning to the phrase, “It’s a dog’s life,” and the trash and pollution are indescribable (Delhi, for example, is known as the “Pollution Capital of the World”). Every tourist complains about the dishonest Indian who tries to cheat him, and we’ve had our share of this, also. You just have to be alert, but it is sometimes fatiguing to argue with someone – again – when they try to triple your bill, for example. We had more problems with this in Rajasthan; the farther south we traveled, the fewer problems of this type we encountered.

Up North, the hardest thing for me was the pollution. Whether biking on small or large roads, the pollution was always there, making it difficult to breathe and almost always covering you with black soot. The pollution was always there – it never disappeared – but the hardest thing to take farther south was the heat. The sun seemed especially strong over India, and the heat and the humidity were oppressive, giving me terrible headaches and migraines when we biked. And we were in India during the winter months! I don’t even want to imagine the summer months!

Though there are some things that made life difficult in India, it is a wonderful country, and we didn’t tire of the colorful people, the wildlife, the flavorful cuisine, and all the crazy customs and religious observances that would take a lifetime to figure out! With a majority religion (81% of the population) that has 330 MILLION gods, I’ll never hope to understand everything!