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San Clemente Journal

Birthday Bash in India -

Sep 14, 2016 11:44AM ● By Maggie Zeibak

Village women still walk to fetch their water.

by Maggie Zeibak

I held my breath, closed my eyes, and clutched the seat a nano-second before colliding with a cow. Horns blared through a mass of seething humanity in a free-for-all traffic roundabout, from which, our pedo-rickshaw driver knew precisely how to extricate us. At my sudden intake of breath, he turned around, and in his best wheedling voice implored, “Baksheesh, tip, lady?” I think he’d done this before.
Then, in Varanasi to observe traditional Indian cremations on the ghats of the Ganges, the drizzling rain cast a surreal moodiness over the blazing fires. Off the side of the boat I made my offering of a candle and flowers in a ‘floatie,’ feeling honored to be part of the somber ceremonies. 
Moments such as these should lie indelibly in one’s memories and I was in India to mark a looming start-of-a-new-decade birthday, rather than bemoaning the fact. Unable to change the numbers however much I tried to deceive myself, I threw caution to the wind, broke out the tiara and made it memorable. A decade ago I had boarded an expedition ship to Antarctica; this time I went half-way around the world to exotic India, cozily nestled up to the majestic Himalayas.
Deciding that I’d concentrate on the heart of the country - the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra - there were a few other bonus spots in the itinerary to round out the two-week tour. Armed with a small pharmacy of recommended medicines against the notorious Delhi Belly, I joined a small group of travelers ready to embrace a clash of cultures, startling colors and food guaranteed to wake up the dullest senses. 
Upon arrival, foggy weather greeted us, a small blessing against the possible heat, and with added smoke from open fires the air quality was to be a challenge at times.
Many of us know little about the peaceful work and hunger strikes of Mahatma Gandhi and how it led to Independence and the partition of India; Hindus staying in India while Muslims went to Pakistan. Yet, many Muslims stayed in India where they work and live alongside Hindus, all considering themselves Indians first. Gandhi’s museum, portraying his life and death is well worth a visit.

The Way of Life
Impressively, most villages are self-sustaining with residents farming their land and eating the produce, or selling for profit. Owning a cow provides the family with milk, but should the animal cease to contribute it is set free to roam and scavenge for food. No cow is slaughtered which is why we see them mingling freely with cars, buses and noisy, three-wheeled tuk-tuks. 
As we stepped gingerly through the unpaved streets, we saw that each household had stacked a supply of patties ready to burn as a source of heat. The raw material is gathered from the ground and made into a 9” circle, then set to dry in the sun. Woe betides the neighbor who collects the droppings of a cow not theirs.
Excited about visiting the National Park at Ranthambore, we were unprepared for the opulent palace that was to serve as our hotel, immediately thrusting us back into the times of the Maharajahs. My four-poster bed, draped in lace, was dwarfed by the size of the suite, which still had original light switches and iron bars to lock the door. 
Rising at dawn and jumping up on the open-air truck, our group headed for the park hoping against hope we’d see a Royal Bengal tiger, long endangered in this part of the world due to indiscriminate hunting. It was very cold and I kept my ears tucked into a beret and my knees covered with a thoughtfully provided blanket.
After six hours of game drives seeing only Langur monkeys, sambar deer, and chinkara, our guide announced that a tiger had been spotted and at break neck speed we headed down the rutted road. There he/she was, lounging on a path, while we parked a safe distance away – what a thrill. There are only 26 in the park and they rarely make an appearance.
Upping my game a bit in Jaipur, I clambered into the basket of a hot air balloon to drift over the 16th-century Amber Fort and watch the sunrise over the countryside. Local village children raced us below and called out friendly greetings until we landed with only a small bump. I left with a kiss from the balloon pilot because it was my birthday – another memorable moment! 
Shopping in India is addictive and my colleagues in crime swept up all kinds of mementos, falling prey to the beautiful designs in the silk scarves, and hand-woven, big-ticket carpets that could be shipped and delivered in two weeks. We all shopped at the Women’s Co-operative, purchasing from sari-clad ladies, and everyone spent money in the coffee shop called She-roes in Agra, run by survivors of horrific acid attacks.
Absurdly pleased with myself for making the long trip, I couldn’t skip seeing the Taj Mahal together with a few thousand of my closest friends. It was under repair, but it is still a fabulous monument to love built by Shah Jahan. The semi-translucent white marble, inlaid with thousands of semi-precious stones, is truly awe-inspiring.
India is like no other place and one is forever changed by the culture and warmth of the people. Long a desired destination for those seeking a spiritual experience, travelers will find retreats to practice yoga and rejuvenate their soul. 
Whether one spends nights under canvas, ‘glamping’ or arranges to attend a polo match at the Rajasthan Polo Club, they will find themselves re-living memories of a visit there for a long time. In my case, another decade … because India caught my heart.