Tag Archives: India

Ajanta caves

The thing to remember here is don’t come in March, that is unless you really like heat. The landscape is a stunning conglomeration of central Texas meets eastern Washington. Add in monkeys, peacocks, and cobras, and you’ve got it.

Ajanta is inserted into this rugged landscape, carved into basalt cliffs and the whole thing would look like Shangrala except that all the grass is dry and brown. The idea of raging fire wanders through my mind as I notice my guide throwing his still lit cigarette into to brush. India refuses to react to such small slights. A forest in Oregon would already burnt to the ground.

Here I have to apologize. The heat along with jetlag along with my newly acquired bronchitis have resulted in completely antipathy about delivering a solid account of Ajanta’s history. It’s old, very old. All Buddhist temples and some with very poorly maintained paintings from BC some time. It’s a tragedy. And not to be offensive but personally I’m tired of looking at Buddhas in various finger poses. When we gig to the Buddha lying down, it wasn’t without a little relief. Buddha himself was happy too, samsara being over.

Again read this with the heat in mind, but if you compared religions to amusement park riders, and the Buddhists seem to be the ones yelling: stop the ride, I want to get off!”


A woman’s place is …

A little game I like to play with myself when I travel is “could I live here?”

To do this I observe other women and take note of how day to day life operates. Please remember I am not commenting on India in general, just Ellora and Khuldabad, which are predominantly Sunni Muslim communities, where women cover their faces and hair when they go out in public and men get to the mosque at least once a day to pray.

As a middle aged white woman traveling alone, I stand out like a sore thumb here, and generally speaking standing out while traveling alone is not the safest position in any place.

But I’m not exactly traveling alone. I have a host here who has lived in the community his whole life and seems to know absolutely everyone. By virtue of my association with him and his family, I’m treated differently from the average tourist. While last year I was approached and almost mobbed by what seemed like everyone who saw me, this year no one comes near me. People smile and nod, but they are more reserved. No one is running after me yelling at me to pay attention to them. No one is “in my face.”

But I’ve also imposed some restrictions on myself. I don’t walk around alone. I don’t leave my room until someone has come to get me. I don’t browse shops alone. I don’t go anywhere alone at all, ever. This is normal for women here. The men escort their women to the market or wherever it is they wish to go. It’s like a vast society of soccer moms where the moms are men.

As a small test I left my “handler ” and with permission walked around the Ellora Caves alone. Initially I was not exactly ignored but no one approached me. But after a while three guys showed up who are part of the regular hawker crowd and began low key congenial conversations with me. In America this would be nothing noteworthy, but here I’m not so sure. My host showed up within minutes and led me away. Back to safety? Had he been following me?

I’m left wondering what signals I’m sending here. My host has confirmed that women just don’t go it alone here, with the exception of teachers and students. Otherwise, we are to be escorted and guarded, guided and informed. People just feel more relaxed when they know who you belong to. And if you’re alone, then obviously you belong to no one and that makes you fair game for acquisition. Or, so it seems.

So could I live here? There are charms to being taken care of. To having everything done for you, transportation arranged, money changed, errands run. As someone who does it all in my normal life, I like or shall I say “love” being taken care of. But being told what to do and how to do it is wearing thin. Needing an escort to feel safe is too.

I also notice that while women are taken care of here, they also work really hard. They stay home all day. They don’t take a break mid day and go off to the community garden like the guys do. They do get an afternoon nap after the cooking, laundry, and cleaning are done.

Awesome clothes, errands run, great food, afternoon naps….are these tradeoffs worth making for personal security and freedom?

Friends of my host say I would be perfectly fine here, but I’m not buying it. I’m not sure I could live in a place were women are ushered off to the back of the restaurant “to the family room,” when male children sit in the front. Men here come right out and admit that there are different rules for women and men. While this is troubling, the honesty is refreshing.

So sadly, I don’t think I could live here. I think I said it before—Russia seemed less oppressive.

The kids here though are so sweet and engaging. Young women stare at me in amazement and smile so warmly. I know I don’t have things figured out and certainly without better language skills, I’ll never have a clue. I’m left relying on my gut feeling. And my gut has been telling me to run for about a year now. Stupid gut.

A short letter to Liz Gilbert

So in the evenings when I’m back at my hotel and perhaps feeling a bit lonely, I’ve been listening to Eat, Pray, Love on Audible. I keep finding so much in this book and love Elizabeth Gilbert with all her openness and honesty and insights. But that said, I can’t let it pass, I have a bone to pick with her. It’s about this undercurrent in her book that keeps stereotyping Indian cuisine as somehow lacking. Her friends ask her what she’s going to eat while in India and she says when she visits India the pounds are going to melt away.

Here I have to say that Indian food is amazing and no one here is going to let you starve by any means. Unfortunately there will be a few people in their efforts to please that try to serve you American food, whatever that is. Usually it’s white bread with jam, or some sandwich. Please just say no. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that America does not have a cuisine.

Eat the briyani for crying out loud. Get the palak paneer with a side of yogurt and cucumbers,etc. Don’t let anyone give you white bread when you could get chapati. Have the lassis and the watermelon and cantaloupe. Drink the coconut water. Go down the menu line by line. Eat with your hands. Don’t forget the chai.

Indian food is amazing. Liz could have written her whole book entirely in India.

Caves, caves, and more caves

If you like Hindu, Buddhist, Jain temple caves, Aurangabad is the place to set up camp. Close by are Ellora, Ajanta, Pitalchora, and the Aurangabad caves. What seems impossible to find here is any kind of writing paper. But if Basalt cliff sculptures are your preferred method of communication, you’re in the right place.

Things to watch out for are bees, monkeys, and cobras.

Friends and Acquaintances

Admittedly, I am an oddity here. Tall, white, American, woman traveling without any male relatives, I tend to stand out to the extent that people have been known to run across fields to get a photo of me. What brought me here? Why did I come back? Where is my husband?

I’ve gotten used to the men staring at me. I try not to let them catch my eye. And I try to cut them some slack. I am like an alien from outer space randomly dropped into their world. Yesterday I noticed a camera flashing in my direction. One of the kids somehow related to my host was photographing me, eating.

I want to show all these people to you but I hesitate as I have entered a world where the women veil before leaving their homes. It seems wrong to blast their photos across the internet, so I think I’ll just show the people I’ve met outside and some of the boys, since they aren’t concerned with hiding themselves.

And here I think I can show you my host’s wife, an elegant and beautiful woman, who melts the world with her smile.

What am I doing here, besides struggling with autocorrect? Looking for some answer to some vaguely defined question. Something about trust and humanity. Something about belonging and community. Something about love and honesty. Money and mortality. The question remains elusive and the answers mocking. Just what am I doing here?

And randomly I keep noticing people I feel sure Ive seen before. Their faces grab me. Don’t I know you? But I couldn’t know any of them. Our paths have never crossed before. It even happened with a water buffalo?—I think that’s what it was. I was walking down the street and the animal locked eyes with me and I stood there stunned. What was it about this creature? It seemed to implore me. It seemed to know me. A large animal has never held my gaze like this and then suddenly it occurred to me that this animal was very old. Then sadly I realized that in my country, our large animals (cows) aren’t allowed to get old.

Poor thing was terribly thin.

Hotel Kailas

I tried one cheap hotel in Ellora before abandoning it for temporary lodging with friends and then the Hotel Kailas. My first hotel had a bit of a mosquito problem and after feeding them for a few hours, I gave up. Moral of the story is to always shake the curtains.

The Hotel Kailas has three different types of rooms, with internet, cottages, and single room. My cottage has AC, but I’m not sure if they all do.

It’s plenty hot in March, so given the choice, AC is the way to go. The hotel is walking distance from the Caves, shopping, and food. There are also great views of the caves. If for some crazy reason you don’t want Indian food, the hotel has a restaurant with Western food. I suggest you skip that and go a few shops down for much better chai and a wide variety of dishes.

Haj Ali Mosque Mumbai

While in Mumbai a few days ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the places I missed last time I was here. Right now I’m struggling with finding time to write and having a dependable internet connection.

As I write this I’m in Ellora at a hotel walking distance from the caves, which by the way are still amazing.

So I’m not going to be all correct and give you a proper historical run down of this mosque. Architecturally speaking, this mosque first began to interest me when I learned it was actually built pretty much in the Indian Ocean. There is a walkway that is consumed by the tide every day, so timing is everything when visiting. The area is known for pickpocketing and my guide told me I had been followed. I was completely unaware.

Otherwise it’s a very peaceful place, and so far holds top rank for the best cup of masala chai I’ve had to date. Not an easy feat.

Delayed until 12:45 a.m.

The Starbucks in the airport closes at 9:30 p.m. It’s now 9:54 p.m. Sigh.

I’m reminded of the movie The Out of Towners in which Jack Lemmon doesn’t eat and then loses his chance. Lots of whining ensues.

My story. So, let me begin this way. It has come to my attention that my tour guide/friend from India and I have hugely different ideas of what acceptable accommodations are, begging the question of just how well do I know this guy?

Indian telephone number

It can make things a lot easier to get an Indian phone number while traveling in India. It’s helpful for arranging cabs and nice for when you meet people. Also, if you are visiting friends in India, having a local phone number can make communicating cheap and easy.

Ok, so how do you do this?

Basically you’ll be replacing the SIM chip in your unlocked cell phone (the key here is that your phone must be unlocked, not all phones are and as far as I know you can’t unlock the phone yourself. You buy a phone that is “unlocked.” Sorry, that’s the extent of my technical knowledge on that subject.)

I went to the concierge at my hotel to get the SIM chip. The brand I got was Vodaphone. It didn’t cost a lot, maybe ten bucks and was well worth it.

I had to show my passport and the phone number for India was set to automatically expire when my Indian visa expired. It was all very neat and tidy.

So I took my SIM chip back to my room and then realized that I didn’t have anything to use to open my phone so I could switch my existing chip with the new chip. That’s when I thought of my earring, and this worked perfectly.

Aurangzeb’s tomb

It’s a simple resting place for the sixth Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb Alamgir (1658 -1707). Said to be one of the most controversial figures in Indian history, the Muslim emperor Aurangzeb remains a bit of a mystery. He ruled for 49 years over a population of 150 million. He was fabulously rich and even possessed the Kohinoor diamond, which now rests in Queen Elizabeth’s tiara. He built the Bibi Ka Maqbara and one of the largest mosques in the world, the Badshadi Masjid in Lahore, Pakistan.

But his final resting place is an open air grave in Khuldabad, Maharashtra, India.

I wasn’t going to visit it. Why, after all? But then I met several people at the Ellora caves, hometown men from Khuldabad, eager for me to see the resting place of this great ruler.

Aurangzeb is the namesake of Aurangabad, the city where my friend got married. He and I have at least one thing in common; we have both explored the Ellora caves, well according to Audrey Trusche’s book. The Ellora caves were lost for a while and then found and all these dates are escaping me.

The place is special to me, not so much for the emperor who lived back then, but for the people who live in Khuldabad now.

Indian Food

I’m back in the States now, but there are several more points I want to cover, so I’ll be posting for a few more days. Tonight I celebrated being home by visiting one of my favorite Indian restaurants here on Oregon. This evening I woke up with that old familiar feeling, heart aching, general malaise, and mild depression. Welcome back to America, the land where we are killing ourselves with food.

I’ll admit that I was a little freaked out about the prospect of eating in India. This is because of everything I had heard about the poor quality and sanitation of the water in Mumbai—from books, websites, and my travel Doctor. I left the U.S. not really knowing what or where to eat. My main guiding principles were 1) don’t eat meat, 2) don’t drink tap water, 3) don’t drink alcohol, 4) eat things that have been cooked at high temperatures. I still think these were good guidelines and I kept to them, well, most of the time.

Coming back from India after two and a half weeks, I felt like myself again. My blood pressure went back to normal (just had it taken at the dentist’s office) and I felt sane again. After eating traditional Indian food, I felt energized instead of how I normally feel here, which is worn out.

So what’s different? I’m actually not quite sure. I think we Americans don’t need to eat as much meat as we do and I think we eat way too much sugar or foods that have a very high glycemic index. While I did eat potatoes and flour in India, I also got a lot of green vegetables and spices. I also am pretty sure I went without MSG, high fructose corn syrup, and canola oil.

On a cultural note, Americans seem to have established a bad reputation for not liking Indian food. Everyone I met was super concerned that I would not like the food. And pride in the food seems to run very deep. My advice is that if it’s a green purée, dive in. It will be delicious!

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai

I think that when you travel to Mumbai, this hotel is a must see. A landmark in its own right, the Taj was built in 1903 by a man who was not allowed in other hotels because of the color of his skin. He vowed to build the grandest hotel in Mumbai and surely he accomplished that goal.

People who have stayed here or graced these grounds are numerous and humbling. Duke Ellington, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Oprah, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Ghandhi were all here.

I suggest staying in the Tower wing. It is newer and cheaper but most important it gives you an excellent view of the older part of the hotel which is stunningly beautiful.

Visa for India

Right before my trip, I had some concerns about how to get a visa for India. I contacted the travel office where I work and was instructed to go through a third party as they didn’t recognize the website I had found. The third party was expensive and was going to take some time. This is their website: https://www.g3visas.com/ Sorry, I’m just going to say it. This was bad advice.

That might be a great website for getting a business visa to India, but for a simple tourist visa, there is a much faster and easier way. In fact, by following the instructions to the letter, I received my e-Visa to India (and it worked) in 24 hours. Here is the website for that: https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/index.html

One more tip. When you get your passport photos (I got mine done at a local FedEx office), get several copies. The other copies will do for your visa and then once you get to India and you want to get an Indian phone number, a passport photo comes in really handy because they will want a photo of you when you get your temporary Indian phone number. More on that in a later post.

The importance of knowing Hindi in India 

People will argue with me about this, but I’m going to say yes it is important. Knowing at least a little Hindi will set you apart from all the other foreigners. Just knowing please, thank you, hello, goodbye, etc really goes a long way to showing interest and respect.

And, in my experience here, the people I was most drawn to knew very little English. 

Yes, you can get by without knowing anything. Most educated people will speak English, but you have to remember that their education is a result of privilege. Privilege insulates you from the harsh realities of the world and can even breed entitlement. In my experience people who feel a strong sense of their own entitlement are not only ignorant of the world but down right dull.

To meet all the coolest people, learn some Hindi.

Vipassana Pagoda

This is the Buddhist temple that none of my Mumbaikar friends knew about. It is within view of Esselworld, the amusement park located in the northwestern part of the city. It is quite a drive to get here. Worth it? If you are a Buddhist, I would say yes. After all the tightness of the main part of the city, the openness and cleanness of this area is a great relief.

Mumbai: Things I Missed

Seems like a silly title for my post because of course I missed things here. There is so much to see.

But now on the day that I will leave, I notice in my hotel’s brochure that I did miss some things I wish I had not.

Chor Bazaar, the ultimate market here in Mumbai. But given that it’s hard for me to take several steps on any street without people staring at me and following me, there was no way I was going to enter a frenetic market with money, alone.

Haji Ali Dargah. A friend advised me not to go because it’s dirty and not well maintained with people who will probably confront me. Again, being alone factored into my decision not to go.

Mani Bhavan, the house where Ghandi conducted his political activities from 1917 to 1934. Simply didn’t find the time.

Dhobi Ghat, the open air laundry of Mumbai. Again, being a white woman alone without knowing Hindi factored into my decision not to go.

Here I will take a brief stop to explain. While most people here are very nice, in a city of 20 million there are those who are not. Plus there is extreme desperate poverty here that is hard to comprehend. For Miss Moneybags to walk into an area to tour the toil of people in these desperate circumstances is an insult. People here have no problem at all in asking for money and demanding that they get paid appropriately. There is always quid pro quo.

I’ve also gotten a great gift in finding out what it feels like to be a minority and the difficulty in explaining what that’s like to people who are not and find it difficult to believe that I feel uncomfortable walking down the street here alone in broad daylight. Any street.

I would absolutely consider purchasing a burka next time.

More on what I missed in the next post.

Late Night Delhi Belly Ponderings

Well, they said it would happen and it has. As I sit here at 2 am waiting for the next attack, I find myself tracing my culinary steps. When did it happen? Was it the water today at Ellora caves? I thought the bottle was sealed? Or, was it the spicy Indian food tonight at the hotel. Was it a little too spicy? Do I in fact feel like vomiting or is that just residual disgust from the cave attendants today at Ellora? Or, at my driver because he obviously wasn’t there when he was supposed to be, as I figured out while sitting with my new found friends, the hawkers. Or, is it the result of the multiple mosquito bites I’ve been getting?

I give up. India, you win this one. You are actually more overbearing and in my face than Russia. You actually beat Russia! I’ve never felt so watched and monitored in all my life. 

If I tell one person that I need the ladies room, five others will know and not just at the hotel, also at the caves.

I’ve stopped chasing down white people, who will make excuses for the constant needling for cash.

If an Indian asks you if you would like to have something, they mean would you like to buy something. They have no interest in any kind of cultural exchange. They want you to buy something from them, their friends, their friends’ friends, etc. They are not offering you a gift. And when they see you coming and you are white, they don’t see a person, they see a pile of lose bills theirs for the pulling. 

I can’t decide at this early hour who is worse, the hawkers or the cave attendants or my driver or the hotel. They obviously are all in league with each other. Forget about those beautiful Hindu and Buddhist values. Just forget about them. They are as cold and silent as the cave statues that depict them.

The culture here is take it if you can get it. Otherwise move out of the way and let someone else try.

Yep, that’s real nasea. I’ve broken out the Pepto Bismol. 

I’m bummed too because I had a full day planned for tomorrow complete with a trip to the “mini Taj Mahal,” the Bibi Ka Maqbara. This masoleum is dedicated to a son’s mother, while the big one on Acra is dedicated to a favorite wife. Then, there was to be a trip to a banana farm followed by some fresh coconut juice.

It was suggested that I return once again to the Ellora caves, but I just can’t stomach the cave attendants. I worked out a deal with the head hawker to keep the others off my back, and this has worked wonderfully. But once I get into the caves, where the hawkers can’t go, it’s nothing but chatty Kathys. They chew your ear off while you ponder a painting and then they want you to pay them.

I’m supposed to feel sorry for them for forcing themselves upon me and ruining my experience of this magnificent art. I don’t.

Maybe I could if we were not standing directly in front of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist statues and carvings.

As a white American woman traveling alone in hopes to see a World Heritage site, I feel nauseated. I don’t want to go back to the caves and that’s a shame. They are truly magical and awe inspiring. During the rainy season they are surrounded by waterfalls.

So, I am scratching Ajanta off the list. It’s a three hour drive just one way to be chased around by more hawkers and cave attendants while trying to see and appreciate some of the world’s most historic and magnificent art. No thanks. India, you have won. If you can’t be better to your tourists, I suppose you won’t have that many.

But out of the various groups, the self deprecating hotel staff, the smarmy and tone deaf cave attendants, my robot like driver, and the enterprising hawkers, I find myself sitting with the hawkers, the ones who seemingly caused me the most trouble. I think this was because an understanding could be reached. We could eventually cut the crap and just sit together as human beings.

Maybe. Or, maybe I’m just kidding myself.

Lost my credit cards, bank card, driver license, dollars

Yep, that’s what I discovered on my friend’s wedding day. I frantically tore through all of my luggage, and it was gone.

The driver was coming in 15 minutes and I had to face down the reality that I didn’t have the card to pay for the hotel or the cash to travel around Aurangabad and quite possibly I would miss seeing the caves.

Was it stolen? Did I drop it? Where was I not keeping an eye on it? When was I apart from it? When did I last see it? Think!

I spoke to the hotel manager while the driver waited. I gave them things to do, research bank numbers, etc. No time to cancel anything and besides I could dispute charges. The main thing became:how was I going to pay for my room?

The wedding was beautiful. The bride was radiant. The groom was handsome. It was fun being around everyone and taking part in the action. It was such a happy day.

I knew that somehow my problems would all get solved. I still had my passport. I still had some money though certainly not much. All of a sudden I had friends and I knew I had a place to sleep in Mumbai if I needed it.

After the wedding, I checked my email and the Taj had found it! I think the Taj just may be the greatest hotel in the whole world. When you dare to dream of unsurpassed customer service, it has to be the Taj. The Vivanta Taj in Auragabad is quite spectacular too with its beautiful garden oasis and exceptional customer service. My room is lovely with high ceilings and an attached terrace.

I won’t bore you with the details, but we got things all figured out. I feel like an idiot of course, but I am very glad and sincerely grateful to both Taj hotels.

Journey to Aurangabad

This was a really fun bus ride for me, and the bride’s friends were lovely, just like the bride. 

Interesting things for me:

People drive on the highway just like they do in the city, loosey goosey.

Few more mosquito bites

The terrain in between Mumbai and Aurangabad is like a cross between Texas hill country and Clarkston, Washington.

In Aurangabad there seems to be a large and devout Muslim population. I can hear the beautiful calls to prayer from my hotel room.

Upon arrival, there must have been some big festivity going on.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel has a bookstore!

The Taj has at least two wings of high end shops. I’m not much of a shopper these days, but anyone who knows me knows I have a weakness for books. And the Taj, being the wonderful place that it is, has a very nicely stocked bookstore with high quality reading material.

Since I’m traveling, I only bought 3 books.

Jehangir Art Gallery

The Jehangir Art Gallery showcases the work of local artists, and when I went yesterday, there were four exhibitions. The artists were onsite and ready to explain their work. They were all good, but one stood out above the rest. I think she is nothing less than a great artist and thinker if our time.

Now granted I am a layman when it comes to art and art critique, but as with science I also don’t hold an isolationist or an exclusivist view of the subject. I believe that art and our ability to enjoy and create art is one of the qualities that defines what it is to be human. (Though I could be wrong as some birds so clearly exhibit an artistic bent on dance and nest design).

I believe that art is for everyone and everyone is entitled to his opinion and reaction to art.

Milburn Cherian is a surrealist who paints complicated scenes with acrylic on canvas. I don’t feel knowlegeable enough to describe her work in technical terms, so please visit her website to learn more.

One of her pieces struck me so forcefully that it almost seemed like a memory. Complicated, symbolic, technically masterful, and thought provoking, Milburn Cherian brings a unique and moving perspective into the world. She clearly is comfortable embracing that often terrifying yet exhilarating creative force.

Her website is http://www.cymroza.com
Milburn Cherian

Milburn Cherian Artist Website

Planning my last day at the Taj

Goodness, this blogging stuff takes time, but it is nice to keep a record. The screen on my iPod malfunctions and WordPress autocorrects with sometimes embarrassing words and I don’t always notice it.

 Tomorrow is my last day at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and I am sad! Sometimes a stay can be too long, but not here. I haven’t really even explored it yet!

Ringo Starr and John Lennon stayed here. This is the hotel where John and Yoko didn’t emerge from their room for five days!

Duke Ellington, my most beloved composer, stayed here!

And many others.

So photos are forthcoming.

The swelling on my feet and legs has gone down, but is still present.

This afternoon I will visit my company’s office here. That is pretty exciting,and I already have it in mind to talk shop and ask how my department can better serve our India office. I have a few of my own ideas of course!

Last night I got to meet my colleague and his family, and he was kind enough to bring Epson salts for my feet!

He has a lovely family and they have very generously invited me over for dinner tonight. So I will see another area of Mumbai.

At the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

But I digress. I was going to write about my plan for tomorrow.

6 a.m. – Rise and shine.

7 a.m. – Grab a quick bite and go to the Gateway of India and take photos of the birds.

8 a.m.  – Swimming pool for the rest of the day!

So I drank the water I was served today and it wasn’t from a bottle. I was assured a few days ago that the Taj is very careful with their water and filters it, etc. So we shall see.

Mosquito Report

Before coming to India, I was warned by the doctor at the travel clinic that mosquitos carry all kinds of diseases, not just malaria. He said: don’t get bitten.

Today at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya museum (formerly known as the Prince of Wales museum), I was bitten 10 times. I didn’t think to wear Deet to the museum and the windows were open.

Cool museum though. More on that later.

Breakfast at the Taj

As I wait for my phone to charge before heading off to the museums, I thought I would comment on breakfast.

I walked up to one of the restaurants at the Taj and was seated immediately. There seemed to be an expectation that I was there for the buffet and that would have been fine except it was all carbs: cereals, fruits, breads, muffins, etc. And no traditional Indian dishes. I explained to my waiter what I wanted, but agreed to at least look at the buffet.

Nope. I spotted other diners having real food and was perplexed. I explained the concept of carbs and told my waiter that if I ate that, I wasn’t going to feel very good. He went off and talked to someone else. I overhead the word “American,” and out came the menu.

Which of course begs the question: what does “American” mean? Persistent? Hard headed? Tips well? I tried to reinforce option 3 as clearly I was already the poster child for options 1 and 2.

I got a traditional Masala. And please forgive me but the only thing I know about Indian food is that I feel good after eating it and it tastes wonderful. Yeah mint!

I told my waiter: See, I made the right choice!

A lady walked by and said wistfully, oh that looks good.

Upon further reflection I believe the staff were merely trying to please by offering standard American fare. They were trying to make me feel comfortable and at home.

The staff at the Taj deserve better than my silly criticism because they are exceptionally hard working and professional. I count myself truly fortunate to be here in this historic hotel among these remarkable and trustworthy people. They are one of India’s many treasures, but more on that later.

Let’s suffice it to say that the incredible staff at the Taj have already made me feel cared for and  at home and I truly appreciate their efforts.

Intentions and meaning do get lost in translation as one travels. When we are out of our element and physically removed from our social networks it becomes about deciding quickly whom to trust.Making the correct decision is a matter of survival. Thankfully at the Taj, this isn’t even a question.

Addendum to post: A day later I realized my mistake. I had only seen one part of the buffet. There was more. A whole line, in fact of delicious traditional foods, warm and waiting to be scooped up. I had not seen them, and so here was the root of the misunderstanding. My takeaway: have a careful look around. The buffet was a bit pricey, though at nearly 20 USD for one person. It was a nice splurge.

The Caves at Elephanta Island

Located 9 km into the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Mumbai, is the small island known as Elephanta. Formerly, as with most things in Mumbai, it used to have a different name, Gharapuri, which means the place of caves.

These caves contain magnificent statues carved from rock and are thought to date back to approximately the 5th century AD. The caves are named after the basalt elephant that the Portuguese saw as they approached the island. This Elephant now resides at a museum in Mumbai.

Spoiler alert: I did not see all the caves. There is one primary cave that the Portuguese did their best to destroy back in the 1600s. The others are much more “Spartan” and after seeing three caves, I was good, what with the heat and the tourists, stray dogs, monkey families, and random young men approaching for photos, plus the prospects for a ladies room looking pretty slim, I decided not to be a hero about this tourism stuff. And, since the 20 hours of flying I had just done, both my feet have swollen up like balloons with the swelling crawling up my legs toward my knees.

Regardless of the defacement performed by the mindless idiots several hundred years ago, proving once again that humanity’s stupidity is timeless, regardless, the cave sculptures were pretty cool.

Survival Instincts

As a woman traveling alone, I’ve become keenly aware of my oneness. Just this morning, the trip from my hotel to the Gateway of India (only across the street) was trying. It seemed that people were approaching me from all directions to get me to commit to something they could charge me for.


My number is 4. After 4 “no thank yous,” I start yelling. I’ll be polite and demur up to a point, and then look out.

I’ve thought a bit about how to keep myself safe. There are the no brainers. Don’t go out alone at night. Don’t drink. Careful how you interact with men.

Today, I began to notice my knee jerk social strategies that for better or worse do seem to be mine.

In the Dubai airport when I felt a bit out of my element, I befriended a young mother with two children who was struggling to find her terminal. We were both going to India!

Today, at the Gateway, I needed directions for where to board the boat, so I knew I had to find someone who spoke English. I walked around listening, and then spotted some white people. They were from Argentina. Spanish was their language, but they knew just enough English to tell me they didn’t know where the dock was. But fortunately this group of adventurous foreigners had a tour guide.

Friend of Richard Gere and lady who paid my debt to a Spaniard
On the boat, I noticed another white lady alone. She turned out to be 71, fabulously wealthy, and an acquaintance of Richard Gere.She ultimately paid the 3 dollars I was lacking to a Spanish man I had convinced, no easy task, to pay the money I needed at the gate.

It’s a long story, basically I only planned to take the money I needed, plus a little extra. After patting myself down a few times, it was obvious that I had not planned for 3 places where I would have to pay: the ferry ticket counter, the entrance to the island, and again after climbing what seemed like a mountain of stairs, a foreigner’s price right before the caves.

On the way back to the boat, tired, hot, feeling poor because I had misplaced my cash and actually had to beg for money to pay my ticket into the caves, I was getting a wee bit depressed until I saw a Sikh and determined that I was in good company after all.

I didn’t talk to him but just knowing about the Sikh philosophy of respect for all humans made me feel better. I wasn’t completely alone.

The Spanish man and the rich lady had tossed a little shade my way over the three dollars.

It recalled to me how it was to be in Russia, when strangers watched out for me and questioned me about whether I was freezing to death and emptied their kitchens to throw dinner parties. I remember my friend from the Republic of Georgia who was on a strict allowance for school, who was barely making it reach into her purse and give money to beggars on the street. Her heart was so big. Do large wallets shrivel the heart?

And all that time, I had the money, just in a different pocket.

When I told an Indian man who was trying hard to be my last minute tour guide how I had to beg for the money to get into the caves, he laughed. 

And then after seeing the weird irony of it all, so did I.

Elephanta Island

Here’s a tip for anyone well adapted to cold but not heat—go in the morning! Take the first ferry, which leaves at 9 a.m. 

Someone tried to stop me on the way to the ticket office and convince me to go in the afternoon, but that would have the wrong choice for me.

The trip takes about an hour. To sit on the upper level, you have to pay 10 rupees more. Either place, top or bottom seemed fine. I opted for the top.

Once you get to the island, you take a small train to the base of a hill you must climb to see the caves.

Porters will carry you up the hill for about 1200 rupees.

I chose to walk in hopes of relieving the swelling in my feet that happened after my 20 hour fight in.

It was a hike, but doable.

I had hoped to see the rest of the island, but proved to be too harsh an environment for me. Heat, bugs, mosquitoes, seemingly abandoned dogs, monkeys, and people eyeing me, sometimes not in an entirely friendly fashion.

These people laughed at me for how I was wearing my scarf (incidentally it was like a babushka), so I questioned them about it and then took their photo.

See, still smirking. They said there was nothing wrong with my scarf, I think they just couldn’t find the words. So, here’s me with the scarf.

I thought maybe it was the color or the pattern, but the concierge at the Taj said that this is how old women in remote Indian villages wear their scarves out of modesty and respect.

Later on someone really liked my scarf. So there.

Trains in Mumbai

There has been a lot of advice to NOT ride the trains in Mumbai. They are crowded. They aren’t designed with foreigners in mind. They can be dangerous. People die on the tracks every single day. Blah, blah, blah. I’m totally going to do it. (I think.)

Notes to Self on Trains

  • Mumbai has 3 major train lines that run north and south.
  • There is also a new metro line in the northern suburbs and a monorail in eastern Mumbai.
  • The “Western” line has the most points of interest for travelers. (It starts in the south from Churchgate Station.)
  • To get around not being able to read or understand Hindi,  note your stop, how many stops you’re traveling, the stop before your destination.
  • Avoid peak hours! (9 to 10:30 a.m. and 6 to 8 p.m.)
  • Avoid going South in the morning.
  • Avoid going North at night.
  • At the ticket window, there should be two lines, one for second class tickets (right) and first class (left)
  • Tell the ticket attendant: [destination station] + first class + return journey + head wobble?
  • First Class ticket costs between 10 and 50 Rupees
  • Female only cars are green
  • First class is denoted by red and  yellow strips on the columns nearby or red and white stripes on the actual rail car


From Reality Tours and Travel



  • Can I just get a monthly pass or something like that? Do I have to buy a ticket every time?
  • Where do I get a map in English?

Special thanks to:


Mumbai Art Day


Place Admission Times Price When Closed Address/Photo OK?/Interesting Details
Jehangir Art Gallery 11 a.m to 7 p.m.  ?  ? 161 KALAGHODA
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu
Sangrahalaya (Prince of Wales Museum)
10:15 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Museum Entry for Foreign Adult: ₹500 (? $)

Mumbai Experience Documentary Foreign Adult: ₹50

Mobile Phone Photography Pass: ₹100

Audio Guide: Complimentary

 Only Closed on Certain Holidays  159-161 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Fort, Mumbai
National Gallery of Modern Art 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Foreign Visitor: ₹500 (? $)  Mondays Sir Cowasji Jahangir Public HallM G Road, Fort Mumba
Leopold Cafe  7:30 a.m. to Midnight  Menu  S.B. Singh Road,
Colaba Causeway

*Current exchange rate: $1 = ₹67.8209 (Rupees)

But I also want to see:




Immunizations for India

Electron micrograph of red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria in humans. During its development, the parasite forms protrusions called 'knobs' on the surface of its host red blood cell which enable it to avoid destruction and cause inflammation. Using scanning electron microscopy, this image shows a knob-rich infected blood cell surrounded by knobless uninfected blood cells. Rick Fairhurst and Jordan Zuspann, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health. @2006.
Electron micrograph of red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria in humans. During its development, the parasite forms protrusions called ‘knobs’ on the surface of its host red blood cell which enable it to avoid destruction and cause inflammation. Using scanning electron microscopy, this image shows a knob-rich infected blood cell surrounded by knobless uninfected blood cells. Photo creidt: Rick Fairhurst and Jordan Zuspann, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, @2006.

(Before you read any further, please note that if you are traveling to a foreign country, you should consult a medical professional on what immunizations are advised because the risks are always changing. I am noting the particular immunizations I am taking for my upcoming trip to India so that I have easy access to what I’ve gotten—just in case. Also, the vaccines were a little more complicated than I expected them to be, with scheduling concerns and time needed pre-trip for dosing.)

I have heard about the risks posed by immunizations, and while I think immunizations for children are important, I suspect that we Americans might be overdoing it. Maybe we get too much, too soon?

Also, actions speak louder than words. When it came to my own body, I didn’t hesitate about getting immunizations. For me, weighing all the potential risks, it was a no-brainer.

My general practitioner said he couldn’t give me the immunizations and advised me to consult a “travel clinic.” So on January 23, 2017, I visited the travel clinic in my area, and since these immunizations are not covered by insurance, I paid $442 for two shots and a prescription for two sets of pills. I walked out with a travel card, which in medical lingo indicated the vaccinations I had just received. Thankfully, this was also written out for me (in layman’s terms) in my departing paperwork.

The vaccines I got are listed below: (A shot in each shoulder. As of Feb 5, my shoulders still ache slightly; 24 hours after the shots, I experienced extreme drowsiness and fatigue to the point where I questioned if it was safe for me to drive; this subsided after a day.)

  • Diptheria/Tetanus/Pertussis (Tdap)—(Offers long-term protection)
  • Hepatitis A and B—(need to return prior to the trip for a booster; afterward offers lifetime protection)


  • Vivotif for Typhoid—(pills contain weakened live bacteria) Yum. A booster is needed every 5 years for those to remain at risk. (Protection up to 5 years.) A neat feature for this medication is that you can text TRAVEL to the manufacturer, and they will send you reminders so you’ll take your pills on time.
  • Atovaquone-proguanil (aka Malarone) for Malaria—(real-time protection; not long lasting)

Vivotif. The pills are a little tricky, especially if you have many distractions in your life. The Vivotif offers, but does not guarantee, up to 5 years of protection from Typhoid Fever. You have four pills to take, which must be taken a day apart. You need to finish the entire round of medication at least one week prior to departing. Pills must be taken on an empty stomach (two hours after a meal or one hour before a meal).  Vivotif must be kept refrigerated. I figured, why wait to the last minute, so I’m beginning my course of Vivotif today.

Malarone.  I have to take these pills with me to India. I have to start taking the pills 2 days before I depart and continue taking them for 7 days after I return.


So now, what am I hopefully protected against? My departing paperwork says the following:

Clostridium tetani
Clostridium tetani

TETANUS (Lockjaw). Rare in the United States today. Causes painful muscle tightening and stiffness, usually all over the body. Can lead to tightening of the muscles in the head and neck so that you can’t open your mouth, swallow, or sometimes even breathe. Tetanus kills about 10% of those infected, even after they receive the best medical care. Enters the body through cuts, scratches, or wounds.

Corynebacterium diphtheriae
Corynebacterium diphtheriae

DIPTHERIA. Rare in the United States today. Can cause a thick coating in the back of the throat; Can lead to breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis, and death. Caused by bacteria. Spread from person to person through secretions from coughing and sneezing.

Bordetella pertussis
Bordetella pertussis

PERTUSSIS (Whooping Cough). A baterial disease that causes severe coughing spells, which result in difficulty breathing. Marked by vomiting and disturbed sleep. Can cause weight loss, incontinence, and rib fractures. Up to 5% of adults who contract pertussis are hospitalized or have complications that include pneumonia or death. Spread from person to person through secretions from coughing and sneezing.

Hepatitus A virus
Hepatitus A virus

HEPATITIS A. A viral disease that affects the liver.  Caused by ingestion of contaminated food or water or via contact with an infected person. Most people recover from infection. Associated with lack of safe water and poor sanitation and hygiene. Can cause acute liver failure, which is often fatal. Does not cause chronic liver disease. Most people recover.

Hepatitus B virus

HEPATITIS B. Hepatitis B is a serious infection that affects the liver. It is caused by the hepatitis B virus. Can cause cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. Can cause loss of appetite; fatigue, pain in muscles, joints, and stomach; diarrhea; vomiting; and jaundice. People who are chronically infected can spread the disease even though they don’t look sick. Virus is easily spread through contact with blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person. People can also be infected from contact with a contaminated object, where the virus can live for up to 7 days. Can be infected by breaks in skill (bites, cuts, sores), contact with objects (toothbrushes, razors, unsanitized medical devices), sex, sharing needles, being stuck by a used needle.

Salmonella enterica serovar typhimurium

TYPHOID FEVER. Can be caught from eating or drinking contaminated food or water. It is caused by a bacterium, S Typhi. Causes a high fever, fatigue, weakness, stomach pains, headache, loss of appetite, and sometimes a rash. If untreated, kills up to 30% of those infected. Some infected people become carriers and spread the disease to others.

a sporozoite of Plasmodium bergei migrating through the cytoplasm of midgut epithelia of an Anopheles stephensi mosquito
A sporozoite of Plasmodium bergei migrating through the cytoplasm of midgut epithelia of an Anopheles stephensi mosquito

MALARIA. A serious, sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite. There are four kinds of malaria that can affect humans. You get Malaria from the bite of a malaria-infected mosquito. Once a person is bitten, malaria parasites enter the bloodstream and travel to the person’s liver where they grow and multiply. The parasites leave the liver any time from 8 days to several months, and enter the person’s red blood cells, where they release toxins, which make the person feel sick. Symptoms include flu-like illness, shaking chills, headache, muscle aches, and fatigue. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may also occur. Malaria can cause anemia and jaundice due to the loss of red blood cells. P. falciparum type of malaria can cause kidney failure, seizures, confusion, coma, and death. Some malaria parasites can rest in the liver for up to 4 years! Prevention: Take the antimalarial drug exactly on schedule without missing doses. Prevent mosquito and other insect bites. Use DEET repellent on exposed skin and wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, especially from dusk to dawn when mosquitoes tend to bite.

Other diseases which could be of concern in India, but for which I have not received vaccinations include:

  • Cholera(risk exists throughout the country; not sure why I didn’t get this one); potentially fatal bacterial disease of the small intestine; severe vomiting and diarrhea; can kill within hours if not treated; spread through contaminated food or water from infected human feces
  • Japanese encephalitis—(Risk exists, but I’m not traveling to a high-risk area; insect precautions recommended)
  • Rabies—(a very expensive vaccine at over $400; but risks are significant from dogs, bats, monkeys; scratches should be taken seriously)
  • Brucellosis—(Risk exists throughout India; travellers advised not to consume unpasteurized dairy products.)
  • Chikungunya—(Peak transmission from June through October; risk exists throughout year, especially in Southern India; daytime insect precautions are recommended.)
  • Dengue—(Significant risk exists in urban and rural areas; transmission occurs throughout the year especially during rainy season; daytime insect precautions are recommended.)
  • Leishmaniasis—(not prevalent in Maharashtra state; insect precautions recommended)
  • Leptospirosis—(risks to those in Maharashtra with fresh water exposure)
  • Melioidosis—(risk exists throughout the country, especially in Maharashtra and other states; highest transmission activity is June through September; avoid contact with potentially contaminated soil or water)
  • Traveler’s diarrhea—(High risk throughout the country, including deluxe accommodations; My doc recommended that I take Immodium and Peptobismol with me; still need to purchase those.)
  • Tuberculosis—(India is in highest risk category for TB; IGRA should be taken by those planning to spend more than 3 months; “travelers should avoid public transportation and crowded public places whenever possible”); stay away from people with persistent cough.

Misc. Risks: Air pollution, terrorist, train accidents.

Other precautions: hand washing; avoid street vendors, buffets without food covers, shellfish, raw or undercooked foods, unpasteurized dairy products, mayo, unpeeled fruits, and salads, tap water, and ice. Use sealed water bottles for brushing teeth.

My doctor began our vaccination discussion by saying that the majority of the world’s drug-resistant diseases originate in India.

Shopping List: Immodium, DEET (30-35%) or Picaridin (greater than 20%), Peptomismol tablets

Predeparture:  pack eyeglasses, sunglasses, hand sanitizer, lip balm, medical insurance

Medical Care in Mumbai:

  • Private ambulance in Mumbai—Breach Candy Hospital — +91.22.2366.7997
  • P. D. Hindjua National Hospital and Medical Research Center— +91.22.2445.2575 or 1298