"The Other Side of India", Opulence in Bombay

1967: Two housekeeping staff knocked at the door of our “surprise” suite in the Taj Mahal Hotel. We learned they were to take our measurements. A female for my partner, male for me. Meanwhile, room service pampered us with delights of Indian cuisine, 5-star style.
We asked ourselves, “What’s going on”? Then a basket of fruit arrived with a card informing us that everything would be taken care of, all our meals and the suite. A few hours earlier, we’d arrived by train not knowing where we’d spend the night, looking like a pair of “vagabonds”. Next thing we’re rested, refreshed, bathed and, it appeared, about to get a new wardrobe. However, I did not shave my long beard! Ah, The Taj Mahal Hotel, what a view! We thought we’d landed in Paradise.

Our suite faced the harbour and famous Gate of India, the granite arch 26 metres high.
The next morning the ex-Mayor’s chauffeur, “Sharma”, took us on a tour where we visited the extraordinary “Towers of Silence” and other landmarks. After a few hours, heat and humidity brought us back sooner than planned.
The phone buzzed. “Could Madame be ready the next day, for some shopping with Mrs? Yes, oh good, then we’ll pick her up at 10 am”. There was another call for me. “We have an appointment for you with a tailor, you’ll be fetched at 10 am.”
Next morning the limousine stopped some distance from the Taj, in front of an old building in a ‘down and out’ neighbourhood. “Here is the tailor, sir, I’ll wait for you”, said Sharma.
A dark and smelly stone stairwell took me up to the second floor. A faded magazine clipping was pinned to the door, showing an English officer decked out in a fancy uniform with red tunic. Must be the tailor, I thought. Knocking, the door opened and a short, elderly man exclaimed, “Yes, yes, come in, come in, I’ve waited for you. I am tailor, very good. Make all uniforms, suits for British officers, long long ago”.
Then he took out a binder, blew away the dust, and proudly showed many uniforms he’d created in the far past. “We make for you a Raw Silk jacket, and two pairs of white trousers, best material, no problem.” He measured me ‘by eye’, walking around, taking notes, then said to come back in the morning for a fitting. So that was that.
When I got back to the Taj, a card sat on the table, decal-edge, gold embossing. “You and Madame are invited to the wedding reception of our niece. It takes place at the Bombay Cricket Club, etc.” Meanwhile my partner returned with more clothes and presents from her shopping trip with our host’s wife. The phone rang. “Did we receive the invitation? Did you get to the tailor ok? Sharma will take you back tomorrow for the fitting. Are you enjoying Bombay?” I responded immediately, “Oh yes, very much!” But little did we know what lay awaiting.


Opulence of India (arrival in Bombay)

This ‘going back in time’ could fill a book of life’s adventures. A blog isn’t a book, but since our experiences in Bombay were the complete opposite of Bihar (like the other side of a coin), I felt like sharing this. That’s why there are now several posts on our visit to India. Travelling anywhere by train can be memorable, especially lengthy trips. When we reached Bombay (now Mumbai), we had no idea where to stay. All I had in way of plans was to experience the “Towers of Silence”. This is the site of the Parsi (Zoroastrian) funerals, where the dead are exposed to vultures, providing the individual’s final act of charity. All we had were the clothes on our back. We both wore sandals and I had a long beard of three months. We looked, to say the least, “dusty”, but welcomed the chance to stretch our legs.I noticed a sign “Art exhibition, upstairs, first floor”. That got my attention. Upon entering the gallery, we immediately felt out of place. It was an elegant ‘vernissage’, or opening reception. 

Ladies in saris, or dressed in latest Parisian fashions. Men in Nehru jackets or well-tailored suits with shirt and tie. And shoes, shining like mirrors.
It was like “Look what the cat brought in.” I focused on the paintings, which were mostly tropical still-life’s of flowers, and made some “comments”. A smartly-dressed gentleman came over and in Oxford English said, “Welcome. Who are you? Where do you come from? I overheard your commentary on the show to your lady. May I ask, are you an artist?” I replied, “Thank you, sir, we’re from Canada. Actually my partner is from the USA. We just got off the train from Calcutta, via Bihar, where we spent a week with Oxfam. And yes, you could say I know a little bit about Art.” His eyebrows went up dramatically. “Good Lord, my friend, did you say Bihar? I myself have never been there” but he didn’t react to my being an artist. “Bihar, my friend, that is some experience you must have gone through; and what are your impressions of India?”
Says I, “Well, yes, we had great adventures, a real eye-opener, but that all belongs to our nomadic nature.”
Where are you staying? Did you reserve a room somewhere?” I replied, “No, sir, this is our first time in Bombay.” “But Bombay is a huge city, and the lady surely must be tired and would like to rest?” He said he would like to be our Host and that he would like to show us the other side of India. Then he introduced himself and it turned out he was no-less than the ex-mayor of this great city! And all because of a curiosity to look at an art show, 20 minutes after arriving in Bombay. He gave us his card and gave some instructions to his chauffeur to take us to a hotel. The car was a black Mercedes limousine. We got into the car, and began our first real “sightseeing” of Bombay. The “hotel” was none other than the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel. So we two vagabond-looking people arrived, with no luggage, at the posh five-star hotel.
When we approached the Front Desk, a man came up to us. “Ah, you must be the people we are expecting”. Meanwhile the crowd in the lobby stared, curious about these new arrivals. We had entered their ‘Sanctum Sanctorum’ and looked like we belonged in the ‘down and out’ quarters of the city. Although, I was wearing my star-ruby ring I’d acquired in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), much earlier in our adventure.
And thus began the chapter of “the other side” of India looked like. But that’s for the next post.


India, Home of the Maharaja

1967 - it was unusually quiet as we passed through the village. We found the Maharaja's palace.It wasn't tall, but set in vast grounds. Surrounded by high walls, you could just see the terracotta roof. The entrance was an enormous, closed wooden door, fortified with brass bolts. We heard peacocks nearby. No bell, clapper or cord to pull. I knocked 3 times. No sign of life.
Then I spotted a small opening at street level. Pushing with my foot, it moved (like a cat door). I crawled through on hands and knees. My partner was not amused, she wasn’t keen on entering in such a lowly fashion! However I got in and this prompted her to follow. We were in a long courtyard with a veranda, set with two bamboo “Peacock throne” chairs.
The place was deserted, but a table with fresh bouquet of exotic flowers indicated there must have been people around.“Hallo? Anybody there? Anybody home?”, I asked. “Hope we’re not intruding or trespassing” (which of course we were.) No reply. I was curious, where were the elephants? We entered a formal garden.

Some peacocks sat on the wall, while others strutted. A few peahens sat in the shade of an ancient Banyen tree. There were flowers and blossoms everywhere. The fragrance was almost overpowering. Fountains, one with a statue of Ganesh, the Elephant God. Another, Shiva Lingam. It was like a dream, and hard to believe we were actually standing in the garden of a Maharaja. 
Beside the Banyen tree was a small temple with shrine. Suddenly we noticed a Sadhu. He had a long beard, was covered in grey ash, and was completely naked. He stood on one leg, perfectly still, holding a Trident. If it wasn’t for his deep, lively brown eyes, he could have been a statue. Trying not to disturb his peaceful state, we walked quietly in the other direction. Imagine the scene: two Westerners appear from nowhere (my partner was a tall blond Scandinavian). He noticed us of course, but took it all in without the slightest distraction, as if we didn’t exist. (We learned later he was the Maharaja’s holy man, or guru.)
There may have been elephants, but we didn’t go further into the premises. The only sign of life was the Sadhu, plus of course the abundance of plants, Banyen tree, and the peacocks. Not even a cat or dog. We went back through the ‘cat door’on our hands and knees.
Luckily our taxi driver was still there.Returning to the train station, I asked him “Is that usual, for there to be no one at the palace? And what about the ‘cat door’?” Nodding his head in that unique Indian manner, he replied, “Maybe you were being quietly observed. And the low door means visitors must enter in humility, and bow down before going into the Maharaja’s domain. As for the elephants, they’re there all right, at least half a dozen.”
Back at the station, we were amazed to discover we had only been gone for three hours. It seemed like a lifetime, or that we’d entered another world, which in fact we did. Six hours later we boarded the train, onward to Bombay. To be continued. Til next time, Henri


In Bihar, with Oxfam

We continue with our impromptu stop in Bihar, the poorest region of India. It’s 1967. Earlier the Oxfam team (from Belgium, Sweden, Denmark and the US), spared us a 4 hr. walk on a hot, dusty road “to nowhere” (after we’d headed out from the train station in the wrong direction).
With our new companions we played Scrabble, bridge and checkers in the evenings, and slept under mosquito nets (although there were no mosquitoes because of the drought).
Early next morning we joined the team to witness firsthand their work and see the local people.
We picked up the local workers (mostly farmers) and headed to where a well was being constructed. The Oxfam philosophy is “help people to help themselves”. So, Oxfam doesn’t give away water, they show people how to build and maintain their own water supply to irrigate their land, in this case, by building a Well.

In 1967 most of the country people in this region were illiterate. They lived in huts made of straw, clay and cowdung. (Cowdung was also used for cooking fuel). Rows of brick-like blocks layed on the ground. “We’re digging a deep well, and these bricks will line the walls”, explained the foreman, “You see in the distance a field of green? That’s where we built the first well; the locals make the bricks, and we provide the equipment and expertise to build it”.
He told us the locals were very friendly, but lived under austere conditions. They usually earn only a few rupees per month, and twice a year, a travelling doctor or nurse visits. If a local person wants to send a letter to a far-off family member, they get charged by a local ‘scribe’. “It’s not always a two-way street here”, said the Belgian group leader. After a couple of hours, we had a break. Then another 2 hours work, followed by a light ‘lunch’. We noticed some were reluctant to return to work after the meal. “Once you give them food, they stop working; this attitude will change, but for now that’s just the way things are”, explained one volunteer.
My partner and I were travelling ‘light’, but we had some extra clothes. We ended up giving everything away except the clothes on our back. After a week it was time to move on. Our friends drove us to the station. We hopped a train (after a 5 hour wait) to Bombay. Altogether our unexpected ‘hop off the train’ in Bihar was an educational and eye-opening experience.
We weren’t aboard the hot and crowded train for long, however. Guess what? Once again I decided to get off. The reason? We’d heard from a fellow in our compartment there was a Maharaja’s palace nearby, and suggested we pay a visit. “Elephants and all”, he said. As soon as I heard the word, “elephant”, my mind was made up! Bombay could wait. This time we learned our lesson, no more walking off into ‘nowhere”. We hailed a shiny taxi and were dropped a ten-minute walk from the Palace. The driver said “the road is too bumpy for my car.” Next instalment . . . the Palace!


Surprise Visit to Bihar

The flooding in India today carries us back to our experience in Bihar in 1967. We'd arrived in India after a memorable sailing with friends aboard a freighter from Holland via Africa, Burma, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Calcutta. We had an Indian train pass which was valid for two months, and boarded the train from Calcutta, destination Bombay (now Mumbai). The trains in India are packed; we luckily got a second-class ticket. (There’s also “fourth-class” hanging onto the sides and sitting on the roof.)

Seated across from us was a man with a restless creature with a long snout, on a leash. Curious, I asked, “What kind of animal is that?”“Oh, this is mongoose, my friend”, he replied in a friendly voice, “my bodyguard against cobras.” From him I learned the mongoose is the nemesis of a cobra. “I am a salesman”, he went on, “and travel often to places that have such snakes, so it’s good to have my mongoose with me. Family back home feel better when I travel, and so do I”. There was no air conditioning in our compartment. On impulse, we decided to forget about Bombay for now, and got off the train. We liked the look of the local people. The morning was still cool. We set off, having been told there was guest room at a farm within walking distance.

In no time we were in the countryside. A young girl walked behind two Brahmin bulls ploughing a field. She had a basket atop her head, and scooped up the dung left by the bulls, putting it in her basket. It got hot, no shade or trees in sight. Crows and buzzards flew overhead. We’d been walking along this dusty country road. There wasn’t a house to be seen, anywhere.

Then out of nowhere, a truck approached. “Where are you guys off to?”, said an English voice. We told them. “That’s in the other direction, this way you’ll be walking for hours! Hop in, we’re with Oxfam.” We gladly got in. And so, destiny connected us to the heart of Bihar. These Oxfam volunteers were intimately familiar with the local region and people; the nearest shelter happened to be their base. Oxfam was there to help the people build their own wells, so they could irrigate their land. “It hasn’t rained here for2 years”, said one. We could well believe it. I’d noticed the enormous cracks in the earth caused by severe drought. And currently in the news we learn of this major flood in that very region, an area at the mercy of elemental wrath. (Perhaps now, made worse by climate change.)


An Impromptu Visit to "Machu Picchu"

Here we are again. Yesterday we received a question from New Zealand asking if I’d been to Machu Picchu in Peru. Yes, I had the good fortune and privilege of seeing this ‘new’ one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was 1969, the aftermath of yet another shipwreck. A group of us were en route from Guayaquil to the Galapagos or “Enchanted Islands” aboard the “Cristobal Colon”, an icon in Equador. After only ten hours’ sailing we hit an island (not an Enchanted one!) This abruptly ended our hopes of getting to Galapagos. [No, I am not a subscriber to shipwrecks, I've only experienced two from multitudes of sea voyages.]
It would be another 20 years before I got to the Galapagos, on a dive-snorkel expedition with Valerie and Ron Taylor. However the Galapagos shipwreck opened up another adventure waiting in the wings. What’s good luck, what’s bad luck?In Guayaquil a ship was heading for Gallao, Peru. Some of our group got tickets. In Lima we boarded the “Tren del Sol” to Huancayo high up in the Central Andes. An amazing feat of engineering. (The train carried oxygen tanks.)From Huancayo by bus to Cuzco, "the navel of the world", where we explored the region, then onwards by another train to the station (at 2,000 m, 6,000 ft) nearest to Machu Picchu. This was 1969, no five-star hotels, no ‘conveniences’ for tourists. From the station we had to hike up to this great ‘city’, located at 2,400 metres above sea level (7,875 ft) and perched on a mountain ridge above Urubamba Valley.

The setting of this terraced settlement is awesome. Aside from the feat of constructing something at this altitude and location, Machu Picchu was a city of an advanced Inca civilization.
The ingenious irrigation system is an engineering wonder. (Later, far away, we’d see a similar system of levadas on the Portuguese island of Madeira). Not to speak of actually practicing agriculture on those steep mountain slopes. We had already seen the massive granite blocks at Cuzco which look as if they’re cut from cheese with a knife.
They fit together in such a way you can’t even put a razor blade in between. Another enigma. Seeing is believing.
Being there is what counts. Different from reading about it or seeing a documentary on TV.
When our group left to return to Cuzco, I remained at Machu Picchu and decided to spend the night, camping out near the ancient Sundial at the Temple of the Sun. It was an unforgettable night, and full moon. (When the Sun goes under it’s cold up in the Andes. No wonder they worshipped the Sun.)
During my vigil that night, I encountered a remarkable event: after the visitors have left Machu Picchu, a man (who is descendant of the Incas wearing traditional Incan attire), strides briskly around the site, chopping away the foreign spirits with a machete. While doing so, he utters incantations in Cetchua.
Next morning, I continued on with my travels by train, to Puno at Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. There I boarded the ancient vessel “Oleanta” and crossed Lake Titicaca by another moonlit night, to Bolivia. But that’s another story. Adios, Henri