Holy Cow!

“Holy cow!” I cried, looking out the car window as we drove away from Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. My wife Margaret and I were quite taken aback, not expecting this kind of a welcoming party, as their dusky images appeared all of a sudden in our headlights wandering the streets of this bustling city. But it was our first of many encounters with the celebrated ‘sacred cows,’ and although predicted, it still came as quite the surprise to our weary eyes.

It was the early hours of November 3rd; a smoggy veil shrouded the city. And as we drove further through the dimly-lit streets, all around, the pungent odor of burning bush filled the air. We’d just arrived on this sub-continent; the seventh largest country in the world, after a tiresome twenty hour flight via Paris from snow-flurried Toronto. Longing for a hot shower and comfortable bed, we soon got our wish as guests of our dear friends Colin and Jocelyne Cholmondeley at their well appointed home in the suburbs of New Delhi.

We were visiting on the invitation of our host and hostess commencing a week ahead of the arrival of our group ‘The Roamers.’ This group, consisting this time of twenty nine members, is a Canadian contingent with whom we’ve roamed the world in the past decade or so. And being there early, arrangements were made for us to tour a site that wasn’t on our group’s itinerary; that being the city of Amritsar in the state of Punjab.

With hardly a day’s rest, our taxi took us early the following morning to New Delhi’s central railway station for our six hour journey north. And even before stepping out, the siege began with hordes of venders and beggars rapping on the window; all contending for our Rupees and highly valued Dollars. It meant running a gauntlet towards the safety of our air-conditioned carriage before eventually being left alone.

Our ‘Swarna Shatabdi’ train pulled out from the crowded station on time, still dark at seven with the sun sitting low on copper skies; its rays a muddy-orange glow yearning to breakthrough the overnight haze. And in the dawning light, to our horror; dogs, cows and the destitute could be seen scavenging the mounds of unsightly garbage lying alongside the tracks. It was a harsh glimpse into the reality of existing in this overpopulated country of 1.4 billion inhabitants. Needless to say it was difficult for us the privileged ones in the comfort of the speeding train to enjoy our four-course breakfast served on good china; knowing despite our heartfelt concerns, every glimpse out the window only brought more visions of impoverishment and despair.

We were met at the train station in Amritsar by our local English-speaking guide ‘Tariq,’ and taken by taxi to our home for the next two days…the ‘Ritz Hotel.’ Later that afternoon he returned, fetching us to witness the much talked about Border Retreat Ceremony at the ‘Wagah Border,’ which separated sworn enemies, India and Pakistan since their devastating partition in August 1947.

Margaret and I were expecting some solemn ceremony at the troubled international border, but instead it turned out to be a fun-filled event. On entering, there was already a festive, almost boisterous mood to the crowd of thousands sitting in the pavilion next to ours. A sea of red, yellow and blue Saris greeted our eyes, alongside squadrons of excited male and female Cadets in smart brown uniforms topped with black berets. And long before we settled down, the public address systems began rallying the crowds with loud chants to the effect of ...“Long live Pakistan;” with a speedy reply ...“Long live India” shouted back and forth repeatedly across borders; sending the crowds into a patriotic frenzy.

We didn’t know what to expect next, but heard a roar as a cadet came running down the thoroughfare carrying a large Indian flag aloft. Prompted by the announcer, the chants redoubled “Long live India”, with him heading towards the border gate giving a friendly taunt in waving his flag at his counterpart across the way, who did the same in return. The music played on at a feverish pitch; and the next thing we knew a street party broke out with cadets dancing and prancing with abandon, only to be reprimanded by their superiors; sending the crowds wild with laughter and excitement.

At sunset the gates were eventually opened, but no one was allowed to cross. And when they started lowering the flags, we watched in amusement as Honour Guards from both countries dressed in peacock-plumed hats, - the Indians in red and Pakistanis in black, - after shaking hands and saluting, tried to outdo one another with exaggerated maneuvers and high steps. They looked comical, these six foot plus soldiers, some sporting handle-bar moustaches; quick-marching parade-style down their respective promenades towards their barracks with the cheers of the festive crowds singing their praises. There was a lingering spirit of camaraderie, leaving us with the hope that some day this ceremony will lead to better relations across the border.

After a sumptuous breakfast the following morning consisting of spicy Indian as well as western cuisine, Tariq met us for our visit to the ‘Martyrs’ Memorial of Jallianwala Bagh.’ It was here on April 13th. 1919, where 1500 to 2000 people attending a peaceful freedom movement meeting, were felled by the bullets of the British Army under the command of General Dyer. To this day, cavities caused by the bullets could still be seen in the fabric of many of the surrounding buildings, marking a sad reminder of the tyranny of the British Colonists.

In contrast, the ‘Golden Temple’ of Amritsar, the holiest shrine of Sikhism, served as a welcome sanctuary. We were eager to enter, but respecting the sanctity of this place, all visitors are required to cover their heads with scarves. Margaret brought her own, while I purchased a yellow one from a willing vender. And after removing our shoes and washing both feet and hands we entered its hallowed grounds.

Our first glimpse of the temple was from the street, its glittering image framed by the large open entrance. But it wasn’t until arriving at the perimeter down a short flight of white-marbled stairs that its magnificence really hit me. Situated in the midst of a placid pond sat this large box-shaped structure the size of a two-storied house, gift-wrapped in gold and attached to the shore by a long red-carpeted walkway. For a long while we just stood there, admiring its shimmering shadow reflecting off the sacred water, while its dome like a jeweled crown, glistened majestically in the morning sun.

It continued to capture my imagination even as our guided tour took us not only along the main walkways, but as well behind the scenes and into the general kitchen area. It’s here an army of volunteers daily prepare and serve thousands of free meals to the faithful and those in need; some of whom were already assembling while we walked around.

We witnessed a beehive of activity with a well organized production line of Chapati makers at hot stoves flipping the popular flat bread. Then off to the side an assembly of women sitting lotus-style in colourful saris peeled and diced mounds of condiments in preparation for the meals. Further on, coming upon the section where the bulk of the cooking took place, to our surprise we were invited and gladly assisted for a while in stirring the big cauldrons filled to the brim with spicy sauces.

The atmosphere could only be described as electric as we walked barefooted taking photos along its white-marbled perimeter. And sitting here since the 16th Century, this city within a city also known as ‘Harimandir’ continued to generate the true spirit and energy of a holy shrine. A far cry from June 1984, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent in troops to flush out suspected terrorist, resulting in major bombings.

But today all around could be heard chanting from the high priest over loud speakers, as devotees in Saris and Turbans of red, yellow and blue, went about their business. A few took baths in the sacred water, while others chanted, prayed and waited patiently in line to worship in the confines of their beautiful temple. And with Tariq’s insistence we also joined them.

Its hallways were far too narrow for the eager crowds, particularly around the cordoned-off altar area where the seated high priest presided. That in turn took up the greater portion of the room, causing a tight squeeze as we made our way to the upper floor. The ceremony though was joyous with the room perfumed by the smoke of sandalwood incense; bells ringing; hand-clasped worshipers heads bowed in prayer, alongside others singing, and we tourists watching in admiration.

With great reluctance we exited this haven, receiving as a goodwill gesture a handful of Prasad; a sweet-tasting treats from a high priest. And back to the harsh reality of the teeming streets of Amritsar we went, placed on a bicycle rickshaw by Tariq in order to reach our taxi parked several blocks away. At every turn in the middle of a rush of cows, bicycle brigades, noisy tuck-tuck three-wheeler taxis and pedestrians milling about, we were confronted time and again by half a dozen hawkers all trying to sell souvenirs at bargain prices, with none taking no for an answer.

My wife and I boarded the train late that afternoon on our return journey, enjoying the temporary reprieve from the chaotic streets of Amritsar. Villages and fields whizzed by as we enjoyed our four course dinner, reflecting on the festive activities of the Wagah Border ceremony, as well as the sanctity of the ‘Golden Temple.’ But all too soon the lights of New Delhi appeared, fast approaching down the track.

Bright and early the morning of November 10.th we caught up with our recently arrived ‘Roamers’ group during breakfast at our new residence, the prestigious ‘Hotel Le Meridien’ where hugs and kisses were shared all around. Feeling like veterans with a week of India under our belts, we were curious to see how best they’d handle the culture shock we’d encountered earlier.

This came soon after we began our tour of the nation’s sprawling capital boarding our coach under the able direction of our national tour guide ‘Raj.’ He struck me as being a handsome and stylish man in his early forties, of average height with thick jet-black collar-length hair combed over his forehead Elvis Presley style. We were fortunate to have this senior tour guide since his knowledge, expertise and leadership proved most valuable during the journey we were about to embark on.

From all accounts, New Delhi in Haryana state is a city of more than fourteen million inhabitants, a good number of whom seem to be on the streets at all times. And at the best of times, like a disturbed ant’s nest, cars continuously scurry among buses and trucks; green and yellow painted taxis squeeze out cyclists, and pedestrians jostle one another for space. With horns tooting, tempers flaring and everyone going in different directions all at once, there’s continuous traffic chaos, especially when the ever-present “holy cow” is crossing the road.

With over a thousand monuments to show for it, this city has been under siege from various conquerors in it’s nearly three thousand year history. The British Empire finally reached its shores in 1600, but it wasn’t until 1911 that it went through a formal re-designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, adapting to the British style. In all sections, gardens, parks and greenery abound, complimented along its major thoroughfares by confusing roundabouts similar to the hub of a wheel, fanning out in different directions. Vast in scope, this metropolis which houses the seat of Government, boasts some of the finest restaurants, bazaars and shopping centres in India.

Our first stop was at the war memorial arch known as the ‘India Gate.’ Erected in memory of Indian soldiers killed in the Second World War, it’s an imposing structure resembling Paris’s ‘Arc D’ Triumphe,’ which we managed to photograph from a distance while fending off the ever-present street peddlers and beggars.

Back onto the bus we hurried, dodging heavy traffic as usual to visit the seventh wonder of Hindustan the ‘Qutab Minar’ sandstone temple. This impressive Muslim monument built in 1193 is known to be the tallest stone tower in India; and was one of the few temples and places of worship not requiring us to don ‘temple socks’ or go barefooted upon its sacred grounds. It took some effort getting out of the parking lot, the busses were so closely parked, but we managed to cross town in reasonable time to the other busy parking lot of the ‘Lotus Temple’ (Bahai House of Worship). It’s an extraordinary building, shaped in the fashion of a large white Lotus flower- the national flower and symbol of purity throughout India. And from a distance, it commanded our attention as we walked along its lengthy flower-lined pathway, all the way to its nine surrounding petal-shaped reflective pools. With shoes neatly placed along the path, we queued up and entered this sparsely furnished building in our ‘temple socks;’ soon after being ushered out a side door in order to alleviate the lengthy lineups.

Returning to our hotel, we passed a number of notable Government buildings, including the Legislature and Presidential Palace; all teeming with activity under heavy security presence and fewer wandering cows. Before dinner at the ‘Chor Bizzare Restaurant,’ our evening was partly spent in congested Old Delhi; its street lights dim, and traffic a virtual standstill. There, we were entertained by a variety of dances of India representing the states of Chatisgarh, Rajasthan, Assam, Goa, Punjab and Kerala, with the performers resplendent in breathtaking regional costumes.

Saturday November 11th brought no relief to the heavy volume of traffic on Old Delhi’s, dusty congested streets. Its there we viewed the famous ‘Red Fort;’ a symbol of Mughal power erected in 1565; during the reign of Elizabeth 1st. of England. This was the first of many forts on our itinerary, giving a glimpse into the warring past, where, as in Europe; regional empires had to be protected at all cost.

In the same neighbourhood, heading to the ‘Jama Mosque,’ we passed the usual busy bazaars and shops on congested side streets. But to our amazement, swinging carefree from balconies, ceilings and roofs for blocks unending were miles of loose electrical cables entangled like large strands of grey dust-coated spaghetti. Although the original source of power was unknown, to us it represented a major fire hazard waiting to happen; while to the merchants no doubt a necessary and inventive means of tapping energy. No wonder frequent but brief blackouts are so prevalent, even in the better neighbourhoods.

Getting up to the Jama Mosque required quite a steep climb, with us donning our ‘temple socks’ to tour the grounds. We were told from that high vantage point, one could usually see the nearby Red Fort, but peering through the haze that day it appeared a mere ghost in the distance.

In Calcutta for decades, the ‘Missionaries of Charity Order’ lead by the late Mother Teresa of Yugoslavia worked tirelessly administering to the needs of their poor and destitute. But generations before this “Saint of the gutter,” started her mission, the great Mahatma Gandhi of South Africa had on a larger political stage dedicated his life to comparable causes across his adopted country. Affectionately known as “The father of the Nation,” he was assassinated in 1948 soon after independence, as a result of his non-violent protests against the injustices of his day. We were privileged to visit his final resting place at ‘Raj Ghat;’ a peaceful garden with tall Eucalyptus trees lining its main walkways, which lead to his massive granite tomb located in an open area.

The highlight of our afternoon was a long drive to the outskirts of Delhi to visit the ‘Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple’ complex. Set in a vast 100-acre site, this modern day wonder showcasing Indian art, wisdom, heritage and values, was built non-stop in five years, with its inauguration in November 2005. After a stringent security check and the ditching of our shoes, cameras, and other electronic equipment, we entered one of its ten majestic gates. These gates represent the ten principal directions described in Indian culture, and is reflective of the Vedic sentiment of inviting goodness from everywhere to all visitors.

It was amazing to see the detail on the 200 sculpted murtis of the great avatars, sadhus, devotees and acharyas of Indian culture outside the main monument. Likewise, we marveled at the 148 sculpted stone elephants, and dozens of other sculptures of people, animals, goddesses and avatars revered by the faithful. It was a pity our cameras weren’t allowed, but the images of our visit to this beautiful sandstone temple will long be remembered.

Our time in New Delhi was fast running out as we boarded a late arriving ‘Jet Airways’ flight to Udaipur in the state of Rajasthan that Sunday morning. We were somewhat frustrated but impressed with the domestic airport security standards. And with women and men passengers shunted into different lines for the ‘pat down,’ the only act not required was to bend over and drop our pants. During the fifty five minute flight, unlike on North American airlines, smiling flight attendants took pride in serving us satisfactory meals, making our journey a comfortable one.

It seems we’d hardly taken off when the lake city of Udaipur appeared beyond the brown tree-shrubbed terrain. And with our bags gathered and stored on our mid-sized white coach, we headed off down the dusty main road shepherded by Mr. Singh, our red-turbaned Sikh bus driver and his young helper.

Known as the ‘Venice of the East’, and the ‘Abode of Kings,’ Udaipur was one of twenty two scattered princely states until consolidated into modern Rajasthan in 1956. Each state was ruled by a Hindu warrior-prince known as Rajputs; and when not fighting among themselves for power, wealth and women, they built hundreds of forts, palaces, temples and gardens; making this region an enchanting place to visit.

Our group was made to feel quite majestic stepping off our coach at the main gate of the ‘Hotel Shiv Niwas Palace.’ On entering the well-appointed reception area, we were each garlanded with white Jasmine petals and greeted with a cool fruit drink. From there smiling attendants escorted us through manicured gardens to our spacious quarters.

Like others, Margaret and I were privileged to occupy a large suite, the balcony of which overlooked the quaint city at the bottom of the hill, and to the right, a partial glimpse of stunning ‘Lake Pichola.’ Grey marble tiles filled every corner of our sumptuous quarters, including the spacious patio area containing two white wrought-iron deck chairs and a matching wide-brimmed umbrella. In our room even the stationary had my name emblazoned on it, giving a nice touch to our welcome. And judging from the lavishness, it took no stretch of the imagination to envision the extravagant lifestyles of the Rajputs of yesteryear, in stark contrast with that of their destitute subjects. Unfortunately it’s a situation that hasn’t changed much through the years.

That evening’s treat was a roof-top dinner under the stars. Dressed in our finery, some being recently purchased Indian attire; we ascended a short flight of marble stairs, each step lit by twin candle lanterns to see our way. And for entertainment, the air was alive with the haunting sounds of Indian music; tunes played by two seated musician tapping short wooden sticks on white porcelain bowls filled at various levels with water.

Served buffet-style, our bountiful dinner consisting of naan and chapati breads, along with a variety of curried sauces and tandoori-styled meats was a gastronomic delight of fine Indian cuisine. And aided by eager waiters and free flowing wine, we sat for hours enjoying our meal and the cool breezes off the nearby lake wafting in, carrying the distant sounds of exploding Diwali festival fireworks. The Orion Belt constellation and all my favourite stars smiled on us happy diners as the festivities wore on, bringing to a close a most memorable day of living regally.

It must’ve been the gurgling pigeons on our balcony that woke us early the following morning. And I’m glad they did, because greeting us through the portal of our ornately sculpted balcony was the faint orange ball of the rising sun. The city was already in commotion as tooting horns, and religious chants from the nearby temple caught my ear. And looking over my balcony into the gardens, scampering brown Rhesus monkeys, some mothers with babies wrapped snugly in their arms amused themselves with playful antics; wrestling one another while swinging with abandon between the trees.

Our conscientious guide Raj was ready and able as usual, this time to take us after breakfast on a conducted tour through the ‘City Palace of the Maharana.’ Passing the ‘Chandra Mahal’ (Moon Palace), - the official residence of the current Maharaja “Bubbles” Lieutenant Colonel Sawai Bhawani Singh, - we proceeded to the 19th. Century built ‘Mubarak Mahal;’ now a museum. Rivaling any European Palace, its interior festooned in amber, Jade and stained glass, displayed some of the finest of Royal brocades, silks, hand-blocked garments and robes dating back to the 17th. Century. In another wing, its armory housed a frightening display of arms and weapons, including an 11-pound sword belonging to Akbar’s Rajput general.

The sun shun brilliantly overhead as we emerged into one of the many courtyards on the luxuriant palace grounds. Raj, ever mindful, was concerned about us falling behind schedule. But on our way to the bus for our city tour, the wide expanse of sparkling ‘Lake Pichola’ caught our eyes, offering tempting photo opportunities. And charmed by the gentle lake breezes dancing in the trees, with waves lapping softly at the shore, the idea of an early lunch break was an easy decision to make. Therefore as we lingered under the shady umbrellas at the lakeside restaurant, it took some effort on Raj’s part to later tear us away.

Udaipur’s narrow streets were no challenge for blue-turbaned Mr. Singh, who with great skill maneuvered our bus pass street-side stalls, heavy traffic and a variety of scavenging animals on our way to ‘Saheliyon-ki-Bari,’ the (“ladies garden”). After visiting other monuments of note, we were the guests of the ‘Rajasthan Art School,’ where a demonstration of miniature painting was observed, and purchases made which could still fit into our bulging suitcases.

The day wasn’t complete without the much anticipated boat ride on picturesque ‘Lake Pichola.’ Sailing in the late afternoon, our party enjoyed the sights and sounds of life on this vast body of water containing floating restaurants, expensive hotels, including one bearing seven star; as well as the attractive ‘Jag Mandir Palace,’ its facade glowing in the golden rays of the setting sun. Nightfall was almost upon us when we returned to our rooms in preparation for our candlelight dinner around the pool, served buffet-style by turbaned waiters in crisp white uniforms.

Our spirits were high leaving next morning for our six hour journey to Rohet via Ranakpur. Unbeknownst to us, it seemed the highway Gods weren’t favouring us that day. But all went well for the first few hours, driving through dusty villages lined with street-side stalls. In the shade some men sat on rope cots smoking as women passed by dressed in bright coloured saris carrying large bundles of bramble on their heads. And everywhere there were smiling children in smart looking school uniforms of blue, beige and maroon waving us by, showered by dust clouds from our speeding bus.

Beyond the villages came sprawling farming areas filled with green, yellow and red vegetation for as far as the eyes could see, tended for the most part by entire families. But apart from the local traffic, every so often our driver had to look out for occasional cows and lumbering oxen-driven carts blocking the roadway. Prepared for the long haul, we even engaged in a game of ‘Trivial Pursuit’ to while away the time; … and then it happened.

We hadn’t noticed it at first, until Mr. Singh slammed on the brakes. Fearing the worst; that perhaps we’d hit a ‘sacred cow,’- the Hindu’s symbol of fertility and divine mother source of life-sustaining milk - we all peered forward expecting the wrath of the angry villagers? But instead, lying across the road was a jagged line of large rocks blocking our path.

We soon learned from Raj and Mr. Singh who spoke to the locals, that for unknown reasons there was a detour in the road, and therefore we’d have to find an alternate route, and soon. Still a long way from our destination and falling behind schedule, it left us no other choice than a risky drive through a formidable dry-river bed situated nearby.

We were lucky it wasn’t the monsoon season or we’d be in real trouble. But it was troubling enough when our wheels hit the first pothole, spewing clouds of dust and pebbles while tilting our bus slightly to the left. With bated breaths we leaned to the right trying to counterbalance. But that was only the first of many that had us worrying whether we’d all have to get out and push, at the risk of being either run over by impatient drivers passing in over-laden trucks, or be bathe in showers of dust for our effort.

Thank God and Vishnu we made it out without breaking an axle or puncturing a tire. On the road again, and feeling good about getting over that big hurdle, we proceeded to the next village only to learn we were heading in the wrong direction. So through the river-bed we trudged again, this time it seemed the embarrassed Mr. Singh was more familiar with the mounds and potholes, though our stomachs and backsides took a beating from the bumps.

We had a good laugh about it in alleviating our fears, but that was short lived, seeing as how we soon found ourselves lost again. This time on a snaking dirt road shielded by tall bushes with no sight of the horizon. And as fortune would have it, the road eventually led out to the right highway, where we journeyed on hoping no other surprises awaited us.

The dangers of highway driving were a constant and intimidating reality we faced. Maneuvering through crowded cities and villages was challenging enough, but when it came to the highway, too often we could’ve sworn the end was near. Most of their thoroughfares are equivalent to one-lane country roads back home. But to Indians it’s a vital artery interconnecting their vast and multifaceted country.

With a strip of asphalt in the middle and framed by loose gravel on the sides, many times it became a test of nerves for us anxious Canadians accustomed to our wide highways and strict rules of the road. Overall, it felt like being on a never-ending demolition derby, watching in horror as crowded taxis, various sized trucks piled high with goods, overloaded buses with passengers clinging onto roofs and sides, as well as motorcycles seating three or more passengers; all came rushing on a collision course towards us.

Our first of many encounters with this terrifying road-dance came on entering a country highway, where at a distance we spotted a large red truck approaching at a good clip. Sitting there feeling quite helpless, the unanswered question crossing our worried minds was who would yield first. The truck loomed larger by the second with black smoke billowing from its huge exhaust pipes like an angry dragon, daring us to give way as in the scary game of ‘chicken’.

I was beside myself with fear, hands clammy, throat dry, keeping one eye on the menacing truck and the other on Mr. Singh. He flabbergasted me though; nonchalantly driving on, not at all concerned we’d all be dead in an instant; leaving no doubt the man indeed had a death wish. And with the monster truck taking dead aim, all he did was lean on his raspy-sounding horn a few times and barreled onwards keeping steadfast to the centre of the road.

It was almost upon us now; I could see the driver’s face, he looked angry and determined. Silent screams filled the bus; stone faces stared at certain doom. My heart raced as images of my children and grandchildren ran through my frenzied mind, convinced we’ll never see them again. And with seconds to spare before the devastating impact I half closed my eyes, held my breathe and squeezed Margaret’s damp hands laying limp at her side; both of us prepared for the inevitable.

Our bus shuddered violently in the crosswinds as if hit by a tornado; glass rattled in metal windows, as terrified eyes followed clouds of dust and pebbles sent flying while the truck struggled to right itself back onto the road. We exhaled all at once filling the bus with collective sighs of relief, while clammy hands unclenched. There was a sly smile on Mr. Singh face, watching our frightened grins in his rearview mirror. But before we had a chance to recover, here came a herd of cows.

One soon learns to be open-minded and flexible when traveling in an environment such as this. And many times we were called upon to be considerate when faced with circumstances beyond our control. As a result last minute decisions regarding changing hotels and venues had to be made; and as seasoned travelers, we applauded the valiant efforts made by our tour operators to find suitable alternatives. What they had no control over, though warning us, was the constant bombardment we’d receive from local beggars and hawkers who’d follow us for blocks every time we stepped away from our hotels or off buses and trains.

We could well appreciate the fact that life for over 70% of its citizens in the 25 States of this vibrant country is to our sympathetic ‘western’ minds, one of deprivation and despair. It could also be blamed to some extent on ‘Karma’ and the legacy of their traditional ‘cast system,’ now outlawed; which regretfully has left generations of families still in dire straights.

But with a literacy rate of 52%, and a life expectancy of 61 years, all around could be seen the perpetual anguish hauntingly etched on the dirt-caked faces of legions of destitute street dwellers. And in crisscrossing this country, we could only feel pity, seeing what passes as homes for far too many in the form of makeshift cardboard contraptions, situated perilously close to bustling traffic on dusty sidewalks, in risk of being stepped on by passing pedestrians and animals.

And in the rural areas, some farming communities as if caught in a perpetual time warp, still cultivate their fields with old fashioned oxen-drawn plowshares while intermingling and sharing close living quarters with their cattle. As a result, earning a living by any means necessary is a daily struggle for most. And though made aware, we were still appalled to witness the great disparity between the ‘haves;’ living in a world of comfort behind their guarded high-walled residences, and the majority ‘have nots,’ subsisting in wretched poverty and squalor, in this the world’s largest democracy.

There’s no doubt our compassion for these destitute people and the dilemmas that typify their lives is beyond question, but as tourists some of us also felt quite put-upon. And even though willing to buy goods from street venders, on occasion as is possible anywhere in the world, we risked being pick-pocketed and near assaulted. But fortunately the safety of our bus proved a refuge on many occasions.

It was also heart wrenching to see the multitude of beggars approaching us everywhere we went. They’d hurry over, reaching out to touch with hands in dire need of a good wash; some with emaciated babies in arms gesturing hand to mouth their hunger and need to feed their infants. But we were saddened to learn some are also seasoned con-artists controlled by organized crime lords, to whom they’re required to submit their daily earnings under threat of beatings or further starvation.

Notwithstanding its overwhelming poverty, to its credit India with a workforce of 306 million is a nation of industry and enterprise. And this work ethic was very much evident as we traversed through cities and rural areas. Apart from ‘stoplight hawkers,’ and street entertainers, commonplace were roadside stalls set up by individuals, as well as shop-keeping families manning dilapidated wooden shacks selling any and everything imaginable.

I found it odd that in many locations there would be streets lined with shops and establishments all selling side by side pretty much the same products or services. In some areas, makeshift cook shops, drugstores or welding repair shops were plentiful, which in my view does little for healthy competition. India’s main exports among others are agricultural produce, textiles, jute, chemicals and precious stones. And with a head-start in the technological field, it bodes well for future generations competing with China in favor of superpower supremacy in Asia, as well as on the world stage.

Its other intriguing attribute is the freedom to worship in several religions. Hinduism in particular is practiced by 80% of the population. But there are substantial followers of Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, the Bahai faith and Jainism. In that regard as with other religious sites on our itinerary, we in addition paid a visit to the 15th century Jain temple of Ranakpur.

On entering, its intricate white marble carvings adorning the entrance first caught our eyes, leading to other equally attractive ornamental pillars and statues situated around every corner. Of course we were obliged to take our shoes off, and during the conducted tour were blessed by one of the yellow-robed high priest, who in parting anointed each of us with a yellow liquid dot on our forehead.

It was November 15th. and after overnighting in Udaipur, our next destination was the vibrant “Blue City” of Jodhpur. It was regretful we arrived late that afternoon; because earlier, we made a quick ‘Village Safari’ to observe the extraordinary lifestyle of the remote ‘Bishnoi’ tribal people. Long-standing environmentalists, they’ve traditionally abstained from killing any living things for their sustenance.

The sun was setting fast as our coach hurried up the steep driveway towards the commanding ‘Mehrangarh Fort,’ erected on a massive 125 metre hill by Rao Jodha in 1459; - some thirty three years before Columbus discovered America. And as luck would have it, we were privileged to have the Fort remain open after official visiting hours for a quick conducted tour. We had to hurry though from one exquisitely decorated room to the next, catching glimpses of the picturesque indigo-painted roof dwellings of the ‘blue city’ below. At the same time, stern-faced khaki-suited guards dressed in green and yellow turbans, remained right on our heels closing massive doors behind as we made our exit.

From Jodhpur we ventured the next day to Jaipur, the ‘Rose Pink capital of the state of Rajasthan,’ where we enjoyed a majestic stay at the former ‘Raj Palace.’ There was some reluctance to leave our luxurious surroundings complete with a saluting red-turbaned doorman, when we headed out the next morning to visit the ‘Amber Fort,’ some distance away.

Sitting sidesaddle, Margaret and I like others, made our way up the hill towards the imposing fort on an artistically decorated elephant. We had to keep a steady grip on the enclosing seat bar to balance ourselves during the climb, swaying back and forth as the big animal lumbered up the steep laneway. Mindful of the nearby wall, I kept my long legs intact while his red-turbaned trainer kept him in line. And all the way up, we had to stare away from a passing procession of trainer-driven elephants making the long descent to a lineup of waiting tourist at the bottom of the hill.

That afternoon, while some of the avid shoppers like Margaret declined, I joined a small party visiting the ‘City Palace Museum’ complex. From there we ventured over to the impressive ‘Jantar Mantar Observatory.’ It was here in years gone by; early Indian astronomers charted the heavens with great accuracy, and told the time on sunny days from a 90 foot high sundial.

It was another full day of activity, but by evening we piled aboard our bus for the lengthy ride out of town to visit a Rajasthan ethnic village named ‘Chokhi Dhani’ for an open air dinner. It occupied a park-like area, where we at first toured the dimly lit grounds browsing the tourist shops; while ethnic dances and acrobatic performances by natives in vibrant coloured costumes were taking place. Some in our party even enjoyed their first camel ride around the park, mindful of low-hanging tree branches.

The next morning, we headed to the legendary city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh state, a six hour drive via Fatehpur Siki; the once fabled Mogul capital. With a few less detours and bathroom stops; one being an emergency stop on the roadway, we made it to the ‘Trident Hilton Hotel’ later in the afternoon.

That evening at dinner as we customarily do, our group celebrated one of many birthdays of our members with a cake and rousing sing-along, much to the amusement of the other hotel guests. It was a short night for most, since quite early the following morning we set off determined to be among the first tourist of the day to celebrate sunrise at one of the major attractions of India,- the world famous ‘Taj Mahal.’

They were waiting for us again … the hawkers and beggars; with bright eyes and eager smiles. We were caught anyhow, despite a brisk walk from the bus in the cool morning air, down the long garbage-strewn laneway of the park. Further on, we entered a strict security checkpoint area before continuing towards the monument, which to our relief prohibited their entry.

As we hurried along, its light-coloured dome was already visible in the dawning light peeping over a high enclosed brownstone wall, enticing me to come closer. And the butterflies started tingling when we turned the final corner, almost scampering down the pathway leading to an enormous red sandstone portal framing its captivating image. A sizable crowd was already gathered when at long last we entered, and peering over shifting heads, the ghostly white mausoleum sat beckoning in the distance.

I soon found myself involved in a polite free-for-all, with cameras clicking away while we jostled for the best positions at the gate. And in the process of getting in the way of others as they with us, I wondered how many of our images were inadvertently captured by the cameras of tourist the world over.

This was a magic moment, and one which many of us may never repeat; therefore apart from our private shots, a professional group photo taken by a local photographer was done. He afterwards led us down the garden path alongside a pond reflecting the shimmering edifice in its shallow water. And just beyond sat a white marble bench situated with the Taj as a backdrop, which has achieved celebrity status since the late Lady Diana had her portrait taken there.

Needless to say, we were all eager to have our photos taken on ‘Lady Di’s seat’. It wasn’t my idea mind you, neither were we showing off or anything, but our group was amused when the photographer insisted that Margaret and I kiss for our portrait in front of the monument built in the name of love. Now how could we refuse?

To appreciate the Taj Mahal is to wander off on one’s own in order to breathe in its magnificence; touch its smooth marble skin and marvel at its durability. And just like millions before, I too sat in awe of Shah Jahan’s opulent white-marbled jewel, situated alongside the Yamuna River since the year 1631; some eleven years after the Pilgrim Fathers sailed on the Mayflower to America.

This mausoleum was erected in loving memory of the Shah’s late wife Mumtaz Mahal who came to an untimely death during the birth of their fourteenth child. Utilizing 22,000 labourers and taking 22 years to complete, his white-domed ‘jewel box’ with its four slightly tilted minarets were originally covered with precious stones inlayed in its floral bouquets utilizing agate, jasper, malachite, and lapis lazuli among others. Though looted and faded through time, the remnants could still be seen today.

We were obliged to don paper-made shoe coverings to enter the tomb proper, and in its darkened interior could be seen beautiful calligraphy inlayed with black marble on its walls and high-domed ceiling. And at ground level, wrapped around two replica cenotaphs as if embroidered, is a filigree screen incredibly carved from a single piece of white marble.

With the sun ascending, the Taj took on an even more luminescent countenance that morning, prompting additional photos of its timeless face. And much like the haunting portrait of Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa; it remained ever serene yet at the same time quite detached from the hubbub of its adulating throngs. With a sense of sadness I took a final look, knowing I’ll never be back. And not having enough time for a proper goodbye turned to leave, joining in the footsteps of millions who’ll never walk this way again.

The crowds of tourists both local and foreign were still streaming in; their faces alight with expectant smiles. And like me, were impatient for their turn at indulging their senses in the splendor of being here. I had a smile of fulfillment as well, knowing I’d now joined the legions through time who were fortunate to set eyes on this the eight wonder of the world. But my smile soon faded before reaching our bus when I saw to my great distress, they were still there,… and waiting.

The influence of Shah Jahan could no doubt be felt not only at the Taj Mahal, but down river at the nearby ‘Red Fort of Agra.’ Its here we next visited, where legend has it he was imprisoned by his power-hungry son, and confined for the rest of his life, viewing his beloved Taj through his cell window until his death of a broken heart in 1666.

Our group boarded the ‘Shatabdi express’ train after breakfast the morning of November 20th. en-route to Jhansi, with a transfer by coach to Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh state. It was there we stayed for the next two days at the ‘Radisson Jass Hotel.’

Apart from some of us enjoying a stimulating ayurvedic massage, our tour took us the next day to the home of the world famous ‘Kama Sutra.’ Situated in the village of Khajuraho and spread out over an area of twenty one square-kilometers, these twenty five remaining temples of the original eighty two, are neighboured by lush lawns and well maintained flowering gardens.

They were first constructed under the patronage of the Chandella Kings, who ruled between the 9th. to the 14th. centuries. And these artistic images of eroticism, which has since titillated the imagination of the world were obscured by dense jungles,- similar to its counterpart at Machu Picchu in the Andean Mountains of Peru,- until rediscovered in 1838, when British army engineer Captain T.S. Burt happened upon the village.

The quarries of Panna, on the east bank of the Ken River provided the hard fine-grained, pale buff and yellow sandstone called Kaimur, used extensively by the local artists and architects of the day. And according to our knowledgeable local guide, the sculptures have been classified broadly into five categories: Images of Gods and Goddesses; panels depicting scenes of courtly life as well as battles and hunting scenes; animals and mythical beasts; geometric and floral motifs on walls; as well as loving couples and voluptuous female figures.

We were lead to believe these graphic carvings of anatomically challenging contortions were primarily tantrik and spiritual in nature, anything beyond that was in the purview of our fertile imagination. Well our imaginations certainly got a good workout, prompting jokes of wanting a smoke and a nap afterwards. The sculptures weren’t visible in the dark however, but my stars were, when we returned to the monuments for a dramatic sound and light show that evening.

Our morning was at our leisure, but by early afternoon we transferred to the airport for our flight on ‘Jet Airways’ to the city of Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Our stay there was at the impressive ‘Radisson Hotel,’ under major renovations at the time.

This holy city, also known as Banaras is reputed to be the oldest living city not only in India, but in the world; and has been in existence even before the construction of the Pyramids of Egypt. Its name is derived from locating at the confluence of the rivers Varuna and Asi; both flowing into the holy Ganga (Ganges) River, which in turn has its origin in the Himalayan Mountains. It therefore gives the people of Varanasi easy access to their sacred river from the 100 ghats (steps) lining the waterfront for miles.

Attracting primarily Hindu pilgrims among others for over 8,000 years; even Buddha visited in 500 B.C. after he achieved enlightenment and shared his wisdom at nearby Sarnath. It was now our turn to experience “the city of learning and burning” as it’s affectionately known, when early that evening we ventured down to the blessed river.

Because of traffic congestion on the narrow streets, our bus couldn’t take us beyond the outskirts of downtown. From there our group was parceled off in pairs onto open-aired bicycle rickshaws with seats too hard and narrow for the bumpy ride. So there was Margaret and me holding on for dear life; propelled by the muscles of an energetic young man pedaling in earnest through the dimly-lit streets towards the popular waterfront.

It turned out to be an adventure in ‘traffic hell,’ and not one for the faint of heart. Starting off, I had to wrap my left arm around Margaret to steady her, at the same time bracing my right foot against the makeshift footrest, making sure my pants cuffs didn’t get caught in the dusty wheels, as we maneuvered in and out of on-coming traffic.

With orange and black tuck-tuck taxis burrowing through on the left and hasty motor scooters with horns blaring on our right, many times we were on pins and needles as our rider would swerve at the last second to avoid crashing into others, particularly at bottlenecked intersections. All in all, we couldn’t help but admire his dancing agility in this frenzied traffic waltz we couldn’t begin to understand.

Dust was everywhere, stirred up by the maddening traffic; clouding the street lights and stinging our teary eyes, adding to our discomfort. After a few blocks, the noise of bicycle bells ringing, sirens whaling, scooters and taxi horns tooting and the shouts of hawkers was so deafening, it was a mystery how they managed to communicate, but somehow they did. And as if that wasn’t enough, running alongside us were beggars and hawkers, trying to negotiate while avoiding cows and mangy stray dogs laying nonchalantly on the medians, partly blocking traffic.

It was all worth it though, despite having to then walk through a gauntlet of sellers and beggars down a lengthy flight of stone steps towards the river. Our reward came when seated on a balcony overlooking the sunset ‘arti;’ a ceremony performed by pundits (priests) at the Dashswamedh Ghat.

There were seven of them, each standing in yellow flowing robes on elevated platforms facing the river. Accompanied by clanging bells, spiraling clouds of smoke from incense pots and haunting chants, the priests performed a slow and prolonged ritualistic dance in praise of Mother Ganga; grateful for another blessed day. And so were we; repeating the same obstacle course on the way to our hotel.

We returned early the following morning to greet the rising Ganges sun. Thankful there were fewer crowds at the Manikarnika Ghats, where a large wooden boat rowed by two burly men was waiting for us. Our local guide, a devout Hindu, took pride in explaining the Hindu Trinity, which consists of Brahma the creator; Vishnu the preserver; and Shiva the destroyer. Together they symbolize the ultimate god known as Brahman, represented by the formless sound symbol of ‘Aum,’ the hauntingly smooth note uttered while chanting.

We pushed off, and to our surprise he blessed us with a brief prayer; handing each a small candle on a paper float to bear our personal supplications. After lighting, we leaned over and placed them with care upon the sacred waters; the warm glow of their flickering lights illuminating our contented faces as holy mother Ganga received them.

From the silence of our boat, I watched spellbound while my candle followed in a slow procession of tiny yellow lights, bobbing along the darkened river. With the fluidity of a water ballet dancing upon her gentle waves our special prayers drifted from sight into the coming dawn. We afterwards were overcome with a profound sense of fulfillment and joy, knowing they were embraced in the bosom of her perpetual tides, joining the billions long gone before ours.

Our tireless rowers next sailed us alongside several of the bathing Ghats, where a variety of activities were taking place among the Hindu devotees at the water’s edge. In the dawning light, men and women in various stages of undress were seen engaged in their morning ablutions, with many immersing their bodies in the cool water. Some were meditating, while others on bended knees performed ancient rituals to greet the dawn.

Our cameras were all a ready, when to the east a dusky orange ball was emerging just beyond the water’s edge, waiting to be captured in our lenses. And in the brightening light more bathers busied themselves down river. To our prying eyes as well as those in scores of other boats, they seemed unconcerned. But what troubled me most was the boatloads of hawkers, rowing alongside in their floating souvenir shops plying their wares to us curious tourists; an act which to me flew in the face of the sacredness of the River Ganges.

Further down river, we soon came upon the section of the riverbank reserved for cremations. Although not allowed to photograph the still smoldering pyres, we were at the same time mindful of the sanctity of the place and the respect paid to the departed. As it was explained, every devout Hindu’s ultimate wish is to have their ashes sprinkled on this their holiest of rivers in their ultimate desire of achieving ‘moksha.’ Based on the number of pyres burning on shore, many wishes were certainly fulfilled that day.

We spent over an hour rowing up and down this multi-purpose river, where apart from the bathers and crematoria; a fleet of men waist-deep in water were vigorously washing clothes, after which laying them out to dry on the multi-tiered Ghats.

Breakfast as usual was sumptuous; followed by a city tour, which also included a visit to ‘Mahabodhi Temple’ in the vicinity of Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon. We were privileged to tour its grounds, consisting of redbrick ruins in one corner of the gardens, and a zoo housing antelopes in the other. But commanding our attention from the entrance was the monumental cornerstone of Buddhism.

Shaped like an upside-down bowl on a green lawn, this massive brown-stoned structure standing the size of a six story building is marked today as a holy shrine for the four million Buddhists in India, and visiting pilgrims the world around.

It was late that Friday afternoon November 24th. when our party returned to Varanasi airport for our flight to Mumbai (Bombay). As with previous flights, several lines stretched along the busy corridors towards stern-faced security officers, who searched and patted us down. We then waited in the crowded departure lounge for our delayed ‘Indian Airlines’ plane. Being an avid ‘plane spotter,’ I was disappointed security didn’t even allow us to carry on batteries in our cameras, since I wanted to photograph some of the domestic airlines including ours, parked on the tarmac.

Our plane soon after arrived, and taxiing to the terminal in the setting sun I admired its sleek white fuselage sporting the national symbol of an orange and blue sunburst on its sparkling tail. We were ushered aboard by smiling flight attendants dressed in attractive brown saris. But we afterwards just sat there for another forty five minutes fanning ourselves, as the engines revved trying to activate the defective air-conditioning system.

With the problem now fixed, our next surprise from an apologetic pilot came in an announcement that because of the lateness of the original flight, our plane will be returning to New Delhi for more passengers before going on to Mumbai. And with a full load on the final stage of our flight, we arrived later that evening in the financial capital of India; where we stayed for the remainder of our vacation at the ‘Eastern International Hotel,’ hugging the coast of the Arabian Sea.

Driving in from the airport that night, many in our group remarked how surprised they were at the cleanliness and orderliness of this city of over ten million inhabitants, with hardly a cow in sight. It was a far cry from what we’d become accustomed to, and this was even more evident at daylight when we embarked on a tour of this beautiful city by the sea.

With the sun rising on the silver-streaked horizon, our coach made its way along the picturesque Mumbai seashore, its beaches fringed with palm trees swaying in the wind. Formally known as Bombay during British rule, it’s today a dynamic metropolis with a population spread out from small fishing villages along the coast to impressive high rise buildings overlooking the Arabian Sea.

Abounding with flowering gardens and public parks, en-route we glimpsed several local cricket matches in progress, their players dressed in traditional whites. But on nearing the city centre, we soon got caught up in the ever-present rush hour traffic. And with a glimpse of the ‘Gateway of India’ to our right, proceeded further into town via the ‘Victorian Railway Station,’ along whose tracks there were devastating bombings this summer.

One of the brief stops made was at the ‘Dhobi Ghats,’ a public laundry situated near the main commuter railway tracks. It was interesting to watch as scores of mainly men, stood knee-deep in water-filled trenches, labouring over bundles of multi-coloured clothes; scrubbing, bashing, wringing and hanging them out to dry in the hazy sunshine.

We hurried back onto our bus, grateful to escape the pawing beggars and street venders, making our way across town to the stately ‘Prince of Whales Museum.’ In its many wings we viewed outstanding collections of temple artifacts and deities, both Hindu and Buddhist. But alas our time was far too short to enjoy an overall tour of this sprawling British neo-gothic building set in lush gardens.

Being a Saturday, the city seemed more in a relaxed and playful mood as our group wandered the pebbled pathways of the ‘Hanging Gardens’ on Malabar Hill. We took a number of pictures among the well maintained plant beds and shrubs, some sculpted in the shape of large animals grazing. And crossing the street lay the ‘Kamala Nehru Park,’ where to our surprise stood a giant booth-shaped playhouse reminiscent of the children’s nursery rhyme: ‘There was an old lady who lived in a shoe, she had so many children she didn’t know what to do…

Our tour next took us through the quiet tree-lined streets of Malabar Hill in south Mumbai, admiring the security-gated mansions and expensive condominiums that rival any in North America. Its here the wealthy reside, some of whom are the reining stars of ‘Bollywood;’ the Hollywood of the east. And it’s this class of residents as well as the emerging middle class who’re responsible for paying 40% of India’s taxes, yet half of this city’s inhabitants are homeless.

With the rest of the afternoon at our leisure, we headed back to our hotel passing other prominent monuments and buildings, among them the impressive white honeycomb-shaped Nehru Science Centre. The sun was now high overhead as joggers and strollers sweated along the seashore promenade, while scores of families’ picnicked and frolicked on the beaches. And making the wide turn along the bend in the coastal road, a multitude of Muslim worshippers could be seen lined up patiently along the ramp leading to the ‘Haji Ali Mosque,’ set on an offshore island, its stately minarets glistening in the sun.

We awoke early that Sunday morning. For some of us our last day in Mumbai and India; and after a hearty breakfast drove back into town to the ‘Gateway of India.’ Similar in structure to the ‘India Gate’ in New Delhi, this fort-like monument commemorating the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911 stands 162 feet tall overlooking the sea.

It was through these same gates the departing British administrators left in 1947 after granting independence, and through which we followed to board our ferryboat to Elephanta Island, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

As we cleared the busy harbour the Arabian Sea breezes gently caressed our faces, heading out on a relaxing one hour boat ride to this ancient off-shore island. Passing the main nuclear reactor at Trombay on the left, an Indian navy submarine surfaced about a mile off our bow, surprising us as its big black fuselage proceeded on course to the nearby naval shipyards, with a parade of sailors standing up top.

Ours was one of many ferries arriving and leaving the island, making way for us to hop onto a bright red open-ended mini-train, which took us two miles down the track to the main entrance. From there it was a steep climb up over a hundred and eighty steps, framed by souvenir stalls and eager venders enticing us along the way.

At my insistence Margaret and I did shop, but for a much needed tree-branch walking stick, which aided our tired bones in making the trek. As expected at monuments and tourist sites we had to go through a security check, with the option of paying extra if wanting to use our video cameras.

Accompanied by our knowledgeable local female guide, we entered the ancient Shiva temple caves circa 450 A.D. And to the right, we were confronted by massive carved statues of Lord Vishnu among others; their intimidating grey images staring down as we stood dwarfed beneath them. On leaving, Margaret enjoyed a quick rickshaw ride carried high on the strong shoulders of four brave young men down the steep stairs, laughing all the way.

When we returned to the ‘Gateway to India’ monument, there was a beehive of activity with more tourists arriving. While awaiting their boats, some took rides in the handy ‘victorias,’ a quaint horse-drawn carriage along the main Marine Drive. But until our bus arrived, we were again the target of the venders, some even trying to sell us inflatable beach balls as we stood across the street outside the palatial century-old Taj Mahal Hotel.

I took my last walk along the beach behind our hotel late that afternoon, feeling quite alone among the crowds. All around were kite flyers, cricket players, strollers, children chasing the waves, dogs barking and prancing between bare feet, along with families on blankets snacking from makeshift food stands. In the twilight, I looked for inspiration in the cherubic faces of the playful children, wondering if their generation would fare any better than their parent’s. I didn’t have to look too far, for hope sprang eternal in their innocent smiles. And as I turned to leave, the black curtain of night descended ever so slowly on the far Mumbai horizon, sending the last embers of the golden sunlight to the other side, awaiting me in the Toronto of tomorrow.

Our group enjoyed our last supper that night at our hotel, also celebrating another member’s birthday. There were nostalgic hugs and kisses all around as in the beginning, but on this occasion, the majority were extending their vacation in the resorts of Goa, while a smaller party was joining Margaret and me on the trip home.

That clear Monday morning November 27, th. we boarded our Air France jet at 2:40, bound for Paris en-route to Toronto. A short sprint down the runway and we were off, with the blackness of the Arabian Sea already distancing us from the orange-tinged lights of Mumbai twinkling brightly behind us.

It seemed a good time for reflection as I settled in for the long haul; and looking back for the last time at the fading lights contouring its lengthy shoreline, it dawned on me this India is not only a complex and dynamic country, but in fact a state of mind which profoundly challenges all of one’s senses. No indifference allowed here, only raw emotions demonstrating either inspiration and enchantment, or despair and repulsion. But above all she cannot be ignored. I was leaving India behind, but I couldn’t help capturing in my heart the smiles of those children now sound asleep, knowing whether I return or not they’ll long remain a beacon of hope signaling at last the coming of age of ancient India.

Ray Williams - Ray's Space

Exotic Asia

“Yoo Hoo” … he cried melodically with a broad smile, greeting us every morning boarding the bus for our day’s exciting activities. That simple cheerful salutation from our diminutive tour guide ‘Setee,’ certainly set the tone in making us feel truly welcomed in far away ... full story