Five Weeks of Superlatives
March 15, 2007
Beginning in early February and continuing for almost five weeks, I traveled more than 3000 miles in central and western India. Over the road and in the air, there surely were a few challenging moments. But most days were exciting. And every day was special.
Seven events were outstanding. They were among "The Best."
Here are my four "best" meals, my two "best" beverages and my one "best" compliment.
1. The Best "Humble-Caring" Meal
Before we left New Delhi, my driver Suresh invited me to visit his home to meet his family.
In a busy residential section, Suresh led me down a crowded, narrow, muddy lane past a row of small houses to the entrance of his home. Suresh lives here with his young wife and new baby son. His daughter is at school. Suresh's younger brother is also part of the household. They have a dog.
My own small 35 sq m studio apartment in Bangkok is a room large enough for one or maybe two people to live in comfortably. Suresh's home is half the size of mine.
Properly covered and shy, Suresh's wife prepares a cup of hot tea in her tiny kitchen area. We stand and talk as I sip my tea. There really is no place to sit. Where do they sleep? Regardless, this family could not be more gracious and hospitable. Suresh is proud of his home and his family. I feel privileged to be invited.
The word has spread in the neighborhood. Outside the door, beside the communal water pump, a group of boys has gathered, curious about their strange visitor. We smile and chat. I demonstrate my version of an energetic "high five." Everybody laughs and giggles and slaps my hand.
The forts and tombs in Delhi are surely grand. But this morning, that grandeur is surpassed by a humble cup of tea and an unadorned, honest moment.
2. The Best "Fun" Meal
Suresh knows the tourist stops along the route from Delhi to Agra. He pulls into a monstrosity of a restaurant teeming with busloads of tourists. Inside the entrance is an arcade with dozens of stands loaded with tacky souvenirs and packaged foodstuffs with remarkably "Western" prices. I pass quickly into the cavernous dining areas. Yes, areas.
I find an empty small table. The servers are scurrying around doing their best to satisfy noisy groups of impatient, hungry guests. I reckon I will be ignored. I decide to leave. I look for Suresh.
I am directed to a small area next to the restaurant. It is the Drivers' Room. A couple of dozen bus drivers and car drivers are enjoying a hearty Indian lunch. Go for it! I sit with Suresh, and a few other young guys at a boardinghouse table. This is a convivial group and I am received enthusiastically. The waiters bring me unending portions of delicious vegetarian stews as they hand out tasty, warm, round bread.
When Suresh and I are quite stuffed and ready to leave, I attempt to pay the bill. Nope. No bill. Drivers eat "on the house" and I am a welcome, if somewhat unusual guest. I tried again. Nope. No bill. Just genuine signs of respect and lots of smiles all around.
3. The Best "Scenic" Meal
In Rajasthan, outside Bikaner, my driver Perdeep drops me off for lunch at a fabulous hotel. The Gajner Palace is a former hunting lodge of a maharaja. I march through the spacious high-ceilinged lobby and discover a tempting outdoor restaurant astride a huge blue lake.
The turbaned server takes my order: Rajasthan Tikal. Tikal is a platter of assorted stews and curries of beans and lentils and yogurt, with crisp fritters and spicy chutneys and sweet pickles. Each item is served in a separate steel dish. I order garlic nan and hot coffee.
I am dining alone but I am not alone. Dozens of birds fly in and float along on the surface of the inviting lake. I linger. I tarry. I order another coffee. I imagine I am in the Alps or the Allegheny's. I cannot decide which is more splendid, the mountain scenery or the magnificent lunch. More coffee, sir? Sorry. I can delay no longer. I am on the road in Rajasthan and Perdeep awaits.
4. The Best "Brave" Meal
"Today," I said, "I want to eat lunch where Indians eat lunch." Perdeep agrees.
Our small restaurant is crowded with Indians, and me. We wait in a queue. I observe.
When a small group leaves, the server picks up a cloth from the floor beneath the table. The cloth is black, so filthy you would not use it to shine your shoes. He proceeds to wipe the table "clean."
Finally we sit and order. The server uses another suspect towel to dry off the wet silverware.
OK. I decide to stay. Here is what I am thinking: "First, the food will not be on the table itself. Second, I can use my relatively clean fingers and pieces of bread to eat my meal, Indian style. Third, I will avoid soup and order only vegetarian dishes. Fourth, given the large number of guests, there must be a rapid turnover of fresh food. Fifth, I cannot allow Perdeep to "lose face."
Finally, I remember that stowed in my luggage are two, yes, two series of antibiotic tablets, just in case.
The meal was pretty good. I even used the silverware, gingerly.
We left and I continued my tour.
I waited. I monitored my stomach. I waited. Any signs of something? Any rumblings? A belch? A cramp? Something?
Before my trip to India, someone warned me, "Jan, everyone gets sick in India." I guess he should have said, "Almost everyone."
I was brave. I was lucky. I never took a pill. Do I have an Indian stomach?
5. The Best "Top-Shelf" Adult Beverage
My friends Paawan and Sushma invited me to join Paawan's parents at the family home in Nawalgarh. We would all attend Paawan's son Agastya's traditional hair cutting ceremony and celebration.
Paawan told his father Ramesh that he would bring a friend. Naturally, Ramesh, assumed I would be a young bloke like Paawan. So Ramesh was quite surprised when he met me. He was pleased to host his contemporary.
After a day of touring and temple visits, Ramesh invited me to join him in the second floor lounge in the family haveli (mansion). We sat upstairs and away from the household staff who do not approve of the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
The staff produced a lovely platter of snacks. Later, Ramesh produced a lovely bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch Whiskey. We talk and sip for a couple of hours. I listen to Ramesh as he tells me the family history.
Naturally, I take my whiskey "neat."
After our chat, we go down for our non-alcoholic vegetarian dinner.
I hope we will return to the lounge for another smooth sip or two. In any case, before I return to India, I know what I shall pick up at Duty Free.
6. The Best "Appropriate" Adult Beverage
Along with the other guests, I was invited for evening cocktails at the retired Admiral's family quarters at his small hotel, Govind Niwas in Jaipur. Tall and handsome, Admiral Madhvendra Singh and his elegant and charming wife made us feel comfortable and at home.
One of the guests asked the Admiral to tell a "war story."
As a young and competent officer in the India Navy, Captain Singh was assigned to sail a newly built and newly purchased Russian destroyer from the shipyard in The Black Sea. The route was through the narrow and dangerous Bosporus Straits into the Aegean and then the Mediterranean Sea and presumably through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea and then the Arabian Sea to India. This was an important mission. At that time the destroyer was the best vessel in its class in the world. Indeed, the Admiral told us, he was trailed by curious ships of other nations.
The Port Authority in Istanbul radioed the Captain to expect heavy fog through the treacherous Bosporus. The Port would dispatch a Pilot. Our confident young Captain signaled back that he was capable of handling the situation and did not need assistance. Pilots are required for all commercial vessels but military vessels have the option of accepting or rejecting one.
The fog grew thicker but our Captain persisted. He became a little worried when he saw other ships close by and alongside his new destroyer. Again and again the Port called; the Captain stubbornly refused any help.
Finally, the fog grew so thick he could no longer see the bow of his own ship. Captain Madhvendra swallowed his pride and called for the pilot.
That was a good decision. My host, our Captain sailed home safely. He rose in the ranks to Admiral and eventually he was appointed the Chief of Operations for the India Navy. He is descended from a long line of military men, going back in Indian history for four hundred years.
At the conclusion of this happy and informative story the Admiral called for drinks. Someone suggested the appropriate sailor's grog. I had my Indian rum with a dash of Coke, of course.
When I see the Admiral again I must ask him about Vietnam and Pakistan and chasing pirates in the Bay of Bengal.
7. The Best Compliment
I was having lunch at the spacious roof-top Trio Restaurant in Jaisalmer. All of the other patrons were also Westerners. In my experience, many Westerners I meet traveling in Asia are "sour-pusses." They never say hello and almost never respond with anything but a suspicious stare when I say hello. There are exceptions.
Sitting across from my table was a group of German women. The oldest, an attractive, animated lady, probably in her seventies, is smiling all through her meal. She seemed really happy. As the group got up to leave I called to her and she came to my table.
She spoke some English so I decided to tell her how unique she is as she is smiling all the time. She thanked me for my observations. She explained that she was smiling at me. She added sweetly, "You have such a very nice country here." I put on my own best smile. "Thank you," I said, "but I am sorry to disappoint you. I am not from New Delhi; I am from New York."
This was not the first time I was mistaken for an Indian. Sometimes even Indians think I am an Indian. That is, until I open up my mouth and my Bronx accent stumbles out. Yes I am a European-American, but with my dark coloring and Indo-Caucasian features, perhaps there is some Indian blood in me somewhere. If there is, I would be proud to have it.
Indian blood or not, India did get "into my blood." I must return to see my gracious friends and to travel in this ancient and wondrous land.
Just recently I noticed an "Incredible !ndia" advertisement that features the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu State. The Temple tower has hundreds of small carvings and decorations. The ad copy says, "They placed an 80 ton rock atop this temple, nearly one thousand years before the crane."
Who can resist such attractions?
!t's marvelous. !t's superlative. It's India!