© 2012; 2001 Connecting: Solo Travel Network & Sandra Harper. Information.
Note: This article is reproduced here for inspirational value alone and will not normally be updated.
Therefore, all facts, figures, and author's opinions are subject to change as time goes on.

Which Way to India? - A Solo Travel Report

By Sandra Harper

After 32 years in one career I needed a bridge to the next challenge: becoming a full-time writer. My new beginning included two months devoted to travel. To ready myself I devoured guidebooks, talked to friends who had journeyed the world over, reviewed tour pamphlets, and selected a travel agent to help. My head brimming with information and my heart eager to embark, I considered my options: go solo, go independently with a partner, or take a packaged tour. A quick jaunt across Australia by bus, plane or train I felt confident doing solo. Hiking in Nepal I decided was best left in the hands of expert tour guides. That left two weeks for northern India.

Do-it-herself Sally

My friend Sally had done India solo – a do-it-herself trip that cost about C$425 per week plus airfare. Hers was a moment-to- moment plan that moved as local circumstances dictated. Sally loved being able to change plans at the last minute without consulting anyone else. She ate when she felt like it, changed hotels as she pleased. Interacting with local residents was a highlight for Sally, and speaking of the warmth of the Indian people makes her glow with pleasure even now. But remembering India also brought tears to her eyes when she told me about unwittingly walking into a very poor area of Delhi. She had been surrounded by beggars, hollow-eyed, starving shells of humanity. She said she had cried all day after realizing that no matter how much money she gave to the poor, it was no more than a trickle in an ocean of need.

Guided Tour a Comfort

So I had an inkling of the challenges that lay ahead even for a seasoned solo traveler, and I knew that many individuals opt for a guided tour, which would show them the beauty and culture of India while protecting them from harsh realities. Me, I prefer exploring and meeting people on my own, yet I don’t like handling all the details. Sally had to spend a lot of time and energy deciding what to do and making arrangements each day. Although she had a basic idea of where she wanted to go, she actually planned the next day’s itinerary on weather forecasts and political conditions.

Plan for Independent Touring

A better alternative to suit both my independent nature and my “mature” North American mind set would be to plan my own trip, and let a travel agent organize the details. My research had turned up Perfect Travels & Tours, a recommended travel agent in New Delhi. I e-mailed a two-week itinerary and received a quote of C$1,560 – almost double Sally’s budget – but worth the difference, I decided. As it happened, I hooked up with a friend while traveling in Kathmandu who came along and shared the expense with me.

Two Weeks, All-inclusive – C$900

We paid the bill only upon arrival in New Delhi. Much to our surprise, the arrangements, in addition to accommodation and transportation, also included a tourist rep to accompany us to and from the airport or train stations, and a tour guide for every city. In all, we spent about C$900 each for three to five-star hotels, meals, car and driver, three overnight trains, all entrance fees, and tips for constant support from guides and agents.

The Itinerary

The most basic itinerary of northern India starts at the spacious British colonial city of New Delhi; on to Varanasi, the most holy of all Hindu cities; then to Agra, home to the alluring Taj Mahal; and through the deserts of Rajasthan to Jaipur, the “pink city” and nearby Amber with its red Fort; followed by Pushkar for its festivals and camel fair; and finally to Udaipur with its still lakes surrounded by mountains and deserts; then back to Delhi.

The Reality

As a first-time visitor to northern India, I wanted to keep an open mind, be a blank slate ready to learn, but I had to work hard to maintain a balanced view. At times, I felt as if I were afloat on a seething, raucous sea of sound and color, my emotions tilting between delight and dismay. Elaborately decorated elephants and elegant horses with turbaned riders paraded against a background of gorgeous palaces while masses of humanity, riding anything from rickshaws to bicycles to hand-drawn carts to screaming motorbikes, mingled with trucks and buses belching searing dark fumes.

Cultural differences constantly hit me in the face. Women, in northern India, wear rainbows of colored saris with long, billowing scarves, but they must cover their faces when they meet other people. Women travelers, if they don't dress discretely, may be touched, followed or verbally harassed. On the crowded streets I saw people of all ages washing, evacuating, and worshiping at their shrines. Driving down a dusty road, you might see a dancing bear imprisoned on his master’s chain, sturdy camels hauling wooden carts loaded beyond their brims, laboring donkeys piled high with heavy burdens, lumbering bulls and cows halting all traffic, wandering pigs and dogs dining on the rotting remains of garbage. Children begging at the car windows as we stopped at an intersection pulled at my heartstrings. I gaped with curious dread at the sight of public cremations and dead bodies floating in the Ganges River.

Culture Shock

Under constant bombardment by a lifestyle far removed from anything in my previous experience, my spirits began to flag. As the days passed, I found it easier to avoid local conditions by staying walled within luxury hotels. I took more meals in hotel restaurants whose American-style prices quickly destroyed my food budget. Because I started and ended each day in lodgings I would not be able to afford in my own country, the contrasting poverty of the people weighed even more heavily on my spirit, and I felt that the sense of isolation from the people was mutual as they looked at me as one of those rich foreigners on tour.

A Rosier View

Had it not been for an Indian tour guide I met midway through the journey, I might never have had a chance to delve below surface appearances and come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Indian way of life. After a long, hot car journey from Agra across the sandy plains of Rajasthan, I reached the “pink city” of Jaipur, the state capital.

Set in a valley surrounded by low mountains with three large fortresses dramatically perched atop nearby hills, Jaipur has spread far outside the walls that still enclose the old city. Founded and built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, a famous 18th century Rajput clan leader known as the warrior astronomer, Jaipur has an intriguing historical charm and a cosmopolitan ambience. I was keen to learn more about the past and present inhabitants of the city and its colorful pink sandstone palaces, temples, and museums.

Pushpendra Singh Rathore waited for me in the hotel lobby. At six foot five, he epitomized his ancient Rajput lineage and made an imposing image standing tall on a lush Indian carpet. He had the stature of a soldier, but I soon learned that at heart Rathore was an artist, and I was as fascinated by his personal story as he was eager to show me the beauties of his birth-city. As we explored the gardens, courtyards, and buildings that comprise the City Palace, Rathore spoke of his father and forefathers who had lived in and served the Royal house of Jaipur since they were ousted from Jagir in Ratlam seven generations ago.

An Artist’s Story

Later, driving through old residential districts, I heard how Rathore, at the age of four, had begun an avocation of collecting colored glass when his childhood home, a former haveli (merchant’s house), was sold. The new owner wanted the building’s stained glass windows dismantled, and Rathore had begged to have some of the brilliant red, green, blue and yellow shards. Over the years he collected and bought, at throw-away prices, pieces of colored glass at the Hatwara, the weekly fair of old and second-hand materials. Some pieces in his collection date from as long ago as 1680 and originally came from Italy when his ancestors invited Italian artists to add colored glass designs to the Ratlam Palace. Some of these pieces now lie in Rathore’s own ordinary house on the outskirts of Jaipur.

Moving from painting to designing textile prints then to the blue pottery for which Jaipur is famous, Rathore determined to master the art form of stained glass. Without any formal instruction he began by creating decorative objects for his own home. Having developed his uniquely Indian style, Rathore’s hobby later led to a full-fledged restoration project at nearby Amber Fort.

Amber Fort commands a bleak, rocky hilltop about 11 km from Jaipur, its surrounding red walls and towers are an enduring symbol of the Rajput clan that controlled the area from the 11th to the 18th centuries. A rumbling elephant ride up a winding, narrow path took us to the fort. Inside was a marvel of marble-constructed defensive gates, public rooms and palatial private quarters, all lavishly and intricately decorated with frescoes, mosaic-tiles and colored glass. Beyond the labyrinth corridors, balconies and terraces of the former Maharajas’ private apartments, we came to magical Sheesh Mahal where the light of a single candle played off walls and ceilings completely covered with colored glass and mirrors.

In 1994 Rathore initiated the restoration of the glass designs of the Sheesh Mahal. Believing that it is his duty to help preserve the Rajput history, Rathore is doing the work without charge. His enthusiasm has been driven by a desire to preserve an ancient art form and to create new designs better than the originals.

Enlightenment

In learning Rathore's background then actually seeing his work in the Amber Palace, my appreciation for the man and his art became integrated with my whole view of India. Now, my “western” eyes could penetrate beyond superficial contrasts of poverty and wealth and see the strength of character and enduring creative power of the Indian people. As an artist who flowered later in life after much persistence and dedication, Rathore was a living example of this rejuvenating process.

I had set off to India looking for experiences to nurture my own creative processes and was fortunate to find inspiration through meeting Pushpendra Singh Rathore. 

Northern India Notes

Delhi

Over 5,000 years of history, kings and emperors have built at least 8 cities here with all the monumental and palatial trappings of wealth and power. “Old” Delhi, was the capital of Muslim India for centuries, and here are the remains of 17th century walls and gates, temples and mosques, including Shah Jahan’s massive Red Fort, and Jami Masjid, India’s largest mosque. The shopping bazaar, Chandni Chowk is in old Delhi.

Raj Ghat, on the banks of the Yamuna river, is the site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated after his assassination in 1948, also former prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Built by the British between 1911 to 1931, New Delhi’s spaciously planned avenues and streets radiate from circular Connaught Place, the business and commercial hub of the city.

Of the many monuments around Delhi, Humayun's Tomb is noteworthy as one of the finest examples of Moghul (16th century) architecture.

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Varanasi, the “eternal city,” has been a center of learning for 2,000 years and is an important pilgrimage site for soul-cleansing rituals in the sacred Ganges River.

Over 100 bathing ghats – steps leading to the river – are the main attraction. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Asi and Ganges, Asi Ghat is considered one of the city’s holiest ghats. Cremation ceremonies are carried out at two ghats, Manikarnika and the less used Harischandra. Tour boats take tourists to observe the early morning bathing rituals.

Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Agra, on the west bank of the Yamuna river, is 204 km south of Delhi. It was the capital of India during the Moghul period of the 16th and 17th centuries. Although it has an impressive fort and other monuments, Agra is a must visit place simply to see the Taj Mahal, one of the most visited and photographed monuments in the world. This famous white marble Moghul monument was built by Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to her 14th child.

Fatehpur Sikri

About 37 km from Agra, the Moghul Emperor Akbar built a red sandstone city between 1571 and 1585, then abandoned it 20 years later. Today, the well-preserved, deserted city sits on a ridge while about 30,000 people inhabit a village at the bottom of the ridge.

Jaipur, Rajasthan

Broad avenues divide old Jaipur into spacious rectangles. The capital of the desert state of Rajasthan, Jaipur is known as the “pink city.” Noticeably royal in ambience, the city was painted pink by Maharaja Man Singh II when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, visited in 1876. Today, every home within the city is obliged by law to maintain this facade. The City Palace, a blend of Moghul and Rajasthani architecture, is the main landmark. The Hawa Mahal is also a fine example of Rajput artistry.

Pushkar, Rajasthan

On the edge of the Thar Desert, the town of Pushkar is reputed to be a place of tranquil respite for tired tourists. Situated beside a picturesque lake, it is another important Hindu pilgrimage site. It is also home to a famous camel fair and market I had been anticipating. Little did I know that the camel fair had been replaced by an important religious festival. I shared my visit with four hundred thousand devoted Hindus and other curious observers, all crammed into one square kilometer. I had two days sleeping in a tent on the hotel roof listening to a ceaseless din of loudspeakers, clanging bells, drumming and chanting. There were no public toilets; the streets became open sewers. It was my worst experience in India, yet later, I concluded it had been a transforming experience. To know India I needed Pushkar.

Udaipur, Rajasthan

Once you get past urban sprawl into the old city, Udaipur is a desert oasis of fairy-tale palaces and fantastic hilltop fortresses situated around three lakes. Towering over Lake Pichola, the huge City Palace is an extraordinary conglomeration of towers and cupolas.

If You Go to Northern India

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