Travels with Lois and Jason

India and Maldives

December 16, 2008 - January 12, 2009

Introduction and Recurring Themes

India MapHow can we ever convey in words what we saw, smelled, felt, heard, and touched?  India was an immersion experience, with an intensity that permeated our very being.  Our western values, beliefs, and culture were challenged on every front.  To be in India was to be worlds away from everything we take for granted. We chose India because it was a part of the world we had never visited and knew so little about, and this trip was just outstanding, one of the most educational we've ever been on.  The culture shock was more drastic than we've previously experienced.  To see so much poverty and desperation was very upsetting.  And, the cows, dogs and monkeys everywhere, integrated into where people live, work, drive, beg, and pray.  On the other hand, our hotel accommodations were incredibly spectacular, many built in the style of the Taj Mahal.  The contrast between what we saw and where dune stayed was just another aspect of how life is lived in India -- in the extremes. 

We were supposed to visit eight cities during our 18-day tour as shown on the map, but because of fog closing the Delhi airport, we only made it to seven and missed Khajuraho.  Each city was unique, showing us a different face of India, but there were themes that permeated them all.  We divided our narrative into three parts:  the themes (below),  cities visited, hotels and special events (including our stay in the Maldives).

Recurring Themes

Flowers were everywhere throughout the country.  Flower leis are made on the street and are gorgeous and were given to us at every hotel when we arrived.  The dead flowers are given to the cows to eat.  In our hotels, bowls with flower arrangements were everywhere, even in the bathrooms. 

bowl 1


bowl 2

cowHoly cow has a whole new meaning:  cows have the right-of-way on streets.  They walked next to us when we drove, and they literally roam everywhere.  Monkeys are wild and fierce and were everywhere we traveled.  We saw peacocks roaming the grounds at our hotels, while we saw dogs, wild boar, pigs, bulls, and goats on the streets, and fortunately, the cobras were only in the snake charmer’s baskets (and only came out when they blew their flutes).  Besides the elephants at the tourist locations for people to ride on, we saw working elephants, and even one getting a bath in a pond.  Camels are working animals too, carrying loads and pulling carts.  We didn't know we were going on a safari!



Cow patties are a major small business industry.  The dung is gathered in a variety of ways from around the city and taken to some production site.  The morning that we went for sunrise at the Taj Mahal, while waiting for the Taj to open a horse drawn cart came by and the cart was literally filled to the brim with cow dung.   The dung is mixed with hay, made into patties, and hand stamped to identify the person to be paid, and set out to dry.  The patties are used for heating and cooking, and we were told one patty usually burns for about an hour.  We saw patties drying on housetops, along the roads, in open fields, and frequently in artistic piles.
patty pile

traffic7Chaos is the best word to describe the traffic and movement of vehicles along roads. Lines may be drawn on the roads, but they don’t correspond to lanes in any sense of what we are accustomed to – people drive anywhere they please or can. Horns go incessantly, and the mix of cars, buses, tuktuk (motorized rickshaws), pedestrians, bicycles, elephants, animal drawn carts, and wandering cows, makes for fascinating observations, and a real challenge for those actually behind the wheel or those trying to cross a street on foot.  Cars and buses drive within inches of each other, seemingly avoiding crashes by miraculous means.  In our three weeks, we did not see any accidents.  On one of our plane flights between cities we sat next to a young Indian man who lives in the US and was home for vacation. He told us that driving in the US is boring and tame and it is much more fun and exciting to drive in India.

traffic 1
traffic4 traffic 2

Smoking is prohibited in all public places (inside and out) throughout India.  What a pleasant surprise!  Signs were posted everywhere saying smoking is an offense.

Mosques, Tombs and Temples.  Mosques and tombs were built by the Muslims, while the temples were built by the Hindus.  Mosques are a place of worship and always had three domes, while tombs are burial grounds and have only one dome.  The mosques and tombs are ornately decorated with geometric, flower and plant designs since Islamic law prohibits drawing of living beings (animal or human).  Hinduism encompasses a wide range of beliefs including pantheism, monotheism, polytheism, and atheism.  Within this perspective, sex is seen as an expression of life force and human beauty to be celebrated.  Hindu temples are designed to represent mountain peaks and are adorned with sculptures of gods and humans.  Hindus believe in cremation and do not have burial grounds.

Mosque at the Taj Mahal
Humayun's Tomb in Old Delhi


Hindu Temple in Jaipur
Typical Hindu Temple Carvings
Clothes were colorful and frequently gorgeous. Almost every woman was wearing a saree, making the street scenes most colorful. Men’s clothes varied from region to region, and depending upon their religion.  Male Sikhs wear a turban to cover their hair, which they say is never cut during their lifetime.  The children fortunate enough to go to school wear uniforms, with different colors and styles for different schools.



clothes 5

Security checks were everywhere with separate lines for men and women. The picture above of the boys in brown uniforms and the women in sarees was taken at the security check point for the Red Fort in Delhi.   Every hotel we stayed at was in a gated area with security guards everywhere.  And these precautions were not just because of the November 2008 terrorist attacks, but long-term arrangements to keep the local populations from the hotel grounds.

Arranged marriages are still extremely popular (and great fun to read the Sunday Paper Classified in which ads are placed by parents seeking partners for their kids).  Some of the more highly educated young people are seeking their own partners, but we were told that is still more the exception than the rule.

Bollywood (India’s Hollywood film industry located in Bombay) makes over 1000 movies a year, with most having lots of songs and dancing to support the plot of parents needing to marry off their daughters. We were told that people go to see the same film over and over again and then sing along. Kissing and sex scenes are not allowed.

Poverty is rampant.  It’s not just that there is poverty in India, but the scale. The Economist Magazine December 13, 2008, did an expose on India. With over a billion people in India, The Economist reported that 42% live in poverty and that malnutrition is a serious problem.  It manifests itself when you see the housing, the beggars and hawkers, and massive number of people just “standing around.” We saw people sleeping on the street, in make shift tents.  We saw people and animals living together.  The sense is that half the people are street people, and that's acceptable.  We saw people burning trash everywhere along the roads.  These were small fires, with one or two or three people (adults or children) squatting next to them for warmth.  The fuel was whatever was at hand, mostly litter or trash, which was spewed everywhere. The air was smoky/smoggy everywhere and almost all the time.



poverty4 proverty9

School is not mandatory and the illiteracy rate is 60%.  It is so sad to see so many children just doing nothing, no opportunity, no schooling, just marking time and begging. The big money making engine in India is information and computer technology, most particularly all the outsourcing from the US to India for support services, but it is touching such a small portion of the society.  On the street the beggars and hawkers are everywhere and in your face in the most upsetting and obnoxious ways.  We were advised to just ignore them when walking down the street and being hassled, but that was so hard to do.  Seeing the poverty and human suffering was just awful.  We had one exceptional experience in Mumbai.  On our way to the airport our last day, we had a driver and guide.  Our guide told us that he lived in the slums in a 186 square foot room with his parents, wife, and two children.  He said he and his wife had a loft for privacy.  He was extremely proud of the fact that he was sending his two children to private school and paid $45 US a month. 

poverty4 proverty9

The caste system exists in India, among all religions, although it is unconstitutional to discriminate against an individual because of his or her caste.  Individuals from the lowest castes hold high office in the government and can be successful in bettering their social/economic situation. Our first day in India we spent the afternoon with a local lady who works in guest relations at our hotel.  Tthe hotel had so many cancellations that she had plenty of time to talk to us.  She told us that she had married outside her caste and that was a real problem for her parents and friends.

wireElectrical wiring was fascinating, more because it apparently works.  It appears that when someone needed electricity, they climbed a pole and installed a set of wires for themselves.

Corrupt government and patronage are the norm.  The Economist reported, “Of the 522 members of India’s current parliament, 120 are facing criminal charges” (page 5).  We had a personal experience with the system.  When our trip ended, our 6:00 AM flight from Mumbai to Bangalore was canceled by the airline, so we wanted to change to the 9:00 PM flight the night before (so we could make our connecting flight the next day).  However, “they” would not let us change the tickets.  We ended up having to pay a bribe ($70 US) to have the tickets changed.  The money went to a person, not the airline.

Indian perspective on history and the world was eastern centric rather than western.  We found after talking with many of our local guides that in high school and college they studied the history of Russia, Asia and the east rather than the western cultural orientation, which dominates our schools.  We need to remember that throughout the Cold War, India and Russia were allies, and relations with the West only grew after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and changing the role of Russia. 

The food was wonderful -- lots of great spices and flavors.  We had some really good Indian food.  Meals were spicy, even when we requested and they agreed to serve “mild.”  Their mild and our mild were worlds apart.  But we do now understand why 500 years ago Europeans were so anxious to find a way to India and the spice islands:  the aromas, smells and tastes were wonderful (when they served the food mild).  We ordered cucumber raita (yogurt with cucumber and flavored with salt and cumin seed) at almost every meal.  The yogurt counteracts the spice making the food eatable. 

food 2



While these themes re-appeared throughout our travels in the north, west and south of India, each city we visited had something unique to offer, and our hotels were an experience unto themselves.  Click the "City highlights" link for that part of our adventure, and the "Hotel" link for description of the palaces in which we stayed and the special cultural events we attended (and our last week in the island paradise of the Maldives).


Lois and Jason Travel Logs       Frand Family Homepage

Photo journalist:  Lois Frand
February 5, 2009
Writer:  Jason Frand

Editor:  Lois Frand
You can reach us via email at Jason or  Lois
February 5, 2009