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By Tom Blake
The word “Namaste” is a Hindu word used as a greeting or salutation. It is usually made with a slight bow, making eye contact, with palms touching, and fingers pointing upward. It means, “I bow to the divine in you.” When people in India say that to you, you feel welcomed and warmth coming from them. It happens nearly everywhere you go in India.
My partner, Greta, and I are on an 18-day tour visiting India and Nepal. After being in India for four days, what jumps out the most is the remarkable, make-do attitude of the people. Simply stated, India is a fascinating country.
Greta and I had heard that November is one of the best months of the year to visit. The weather has been around 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, warm but not hot. Blue skies every day. While the air has been a bit smoky, masks have not been necessary. A perfect setting for a first visit to this amazing land.
We are traveling in a modern, air-conditioned bus and staying in beautiful hotels. There are 13 of us, all Americans from across the country, plus a knowledgeable guide named Kapil, with a sense of humor, and a driver and assistant driver. Kapil had local contacts in each city we have visited. He is a studied historian able to share with us information about the history of India and modern-day customs. He alerts us, sometimes with just eye contact, to situations we should avoid.
Security is tight here. Armed soldiers have been visible at every location where we’ve disembarked the bus. At our New Delhi hotel, our bags were sent through a scanner and we were patted down. There was a guard on the 29th floor of our hotel, where our room was.
The food is tasty, and often spicy, but not unbearably hot. Most of our meals have been buffet-style, so we could eat as much Indian food as we’ve wanted, while mixing in American food like scrambled eggs and bacon. Bottled water is handed out to us on our bus and our hotel rooms have had complimentary bottled water as well.
New Delhi has a population of 21 million people who own 7 million automobiles.
Kapil told us 2,500 new people move to New Delhi every day.
The roads are often gridlocked, some with 10 lanes of traffic in each direction. Tuk tuks (auto rickshaws) and motorcycles dart in and out of traffic, jockeying for position. Horn honking is a way of life, keeping the congested roads safe. Most trucks have signs in the back that state, “Use horn.” That means let the truck know you are passing. People honk to say “I’m here,” not so much, “Get out of the way.”
Our first day in New Delhi began with a visit to the Qutab Minar Victory Tower, the world’s tallest minaret, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then, we learned about Sikh culture at a prominent Sikh house of worship. Some of our group helped roll dough into tortillas in the volunteer kitchen. This temple serves 500,000 people in need free food every day and is run entirely by volunteers.
The day included a visit to the Gandhi Smirti, the museum dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India. He believed in equality of all people. We saw the room where Gandhi spent his last 140 days fasting before venturing out for a prayer service, where he was assassinated on the grounds outside.
On Nov. 8, the people of India unexpectedly received news from the government that banknotes of 500 and 1,000 rupees denominations were no longer a valid currency. There was too much counterfeit money in circulation. People holding those bills, called “old money” had to exchange them at banks and post offices for “new money.”
Many residents in India exist in a cash-only society. Some live day-to-day on the money they earn. The situation has reached near-panic status. The lines at banks and post offices were long—we saw thousands standing in queues for hours in every town we passed through. Tempers were flaring in many situations.
The English-language newspaper, The Indian Express, stated in the next morning’s edition that 23 people had been killed the day before in arguments while vying for position standing in line. ATMs ran out of money. People needed money to live on, to buy groceries for their families. Even New Delhi’s red light district had shut down because patrons didn’t have the money.
The people of India, however, have a make-do spirit. By that I mean they make the best they can with what simple assets they have. I saw tuk-tuks made to carry three people with as many as six riders. Several times we passed open-bed trucks with 30 to 40 people packed in like sardines, including elderly women in colorful saris who waved at us. The Indian people will survive the money crisis as well, but it will take time.
We saw camels pulling carts and elephants transporting goods as they walked on the side of streets and highways. We saw cows and boars walking freely in town squares. There were monkeys along the highway in the countryside.
Often, roadside stores and shops are constructed of corrugated metal. Whatever it takes to open a business.
Our group was affected by the money crisis as well. Greta and I had purchased rupees before leaving California; it was now “old money,” needing to be exchanged or somehow accepted by merchants. Some merchants and shops were willing to accept our “old money,” even knowing they would have to stand in line to exchange it. They needed the business.
The highlight of our first few days was enjoying an elephant ride up to the Amber Fort near the bustling city of Jaipur. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Each day is a new adventure in this spiritual land.
Tom Blake is a Dana Point resident and a former Dana Point businessman who has authored several books on middle-aged dating. See his websites at www.findingloveafter50.com; www.vicsta.com and www.travelafter55.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.