In June 1966, my mother graduated from UC Berkeley and my father graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Each, for their own reasons, joined the 5-year-old Peace Corps, and met during Peace Corps training over the summer. My mom was quickly romantically involved with another volunteer and my dad was eager to remain unencumbered, but when her relationship with the other guy fizzled and their friendship strengthened, it was only a matter of time before they got together. While they started out as a casual couple, the surprise of my impending arrival sped things up dramatically. After a quick wedding in Delhi, and a honeymoon around India by train, they were invited by the Peace Corps to make their way back to the US in Spring 1968.
I may not have been born in India, but I’ve always known that if not for India, I would not exist. My brother and I were raised on stories of cobras and tarantulas, cement block houses and outdoor “toilets,” and stunning scenery and temples. Our home was always filled with Indian art and deities. And every celebration or consolation dinner was Indian food. I have always felt a need to see it for myself.
Flash forward 50 years, and I am living in India, reading my parents’ journals and letters, and preparing to travel with my visiting brother. Jesse and I decided to meet in Delhi, which he would reach after a direct 16-hour flight from San Francisco, and spend a few days exploring the Capitol. We would then go to the villages in Haryana where our parents lived in the 60’s, and finish the northern part of our journey in Chandigarh, India’s attempt in the 1950’s to create a city of the future for the newly liberated nation. Jesse and I would then make our way to Bangalore so he could see a bit of my life in India before we went to Mysore for a day and Kabini for 3 more days in hopes of seeing wildlife. With only two weeks away from home, we did our best to cram in as much as possible. It was great.
My expectations for Delhi were simultaneously very high and very low. I expected it to somehow feel familiar from my parents stories, and I was excited to see a hotel frequently mentioned in their journals and another hotel where they had their wedding reception. I also expected it to be hot, filthy, chaotic, and gray. The reality was a little different. I loved Delhi – it’s beautiful and green and felt so much less chaotic than Bangalore (people drive in lanes!); the monuments are stunning and the sense of history is truly pervasive; and the people were warm and kind, if occasionally a bit bossy (from a random stranger who stopped to ask us where we were going: “No. You should not go there now. It is not safe during the demonstration. You should go there later and do this other thing now. Get into this rickshaw right now.”). It was also difficult to feel my parents in a place that has changed and grown so dramatically since their time there. From a city of 3 million, it has become a city of over 25 million. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like 50 years ago, although much of the architecture is still there.
Our trip to Delhi coincided with Gandhi Jayanti, an annual celebration of Gandhi’s life and teachings – this would have been great if it hadn’t also meant that most things were closed on Tuesday with short hours on Sunday and Monday. Still, we saw a lot. It felt appropriate to start out with a visit to Gandhi Smriti (Memorial) where he spent the last 144 days of his life as well as being the site of his assassination. It’s a lovely museum and a beautiful tribute to the man.
Unfortunately the site of his cremation and the eternal flame of remembrance was closed off to the public to ensure security for the VIPs traveling from around the country. We opted for a visit to the Jantar Mantar instead – a sundial built by the Maharaja in the early 18th century.
To be sure we missed nothing essential, we opted for a day-long tour that was truly fabulous. We saw the Jama Masjid (where we wished we’d sprung for the few hundred rupees to bring our cameras inside with us), took a rickshaw ride through Old Delhi, visited Humayun’s Tomb, drove past the Red Fort (apparently it’s better from the outside), went to the Qutub Minar, and finished our tour with the Sri Bangla Sahib Gurudwara.
At the close of our day tour, our driver kindly dropped us at the Oberoi Maidens Hotel. Luckily we had mentioned to our tour guide that we wanted to go to the Oberoi Hotel where our parents used to go for dinner and dancing in the 1960’s. He helpfully told us that the Oberoi we had identified was less than 10 years old and that the one we wanted was usually called the Maidens Hotel and was in a completely different part of the city. Whew! It was a lovely evening drinking in the bar that they surely frequented and eating western food on the terrace which they surely did.
For our last day, Gandhi Jayanti, there was no reason to leave the hotel in the morning as absolutely everything was closed, but we went in the afternoon to the Lodhi Gardens which could not have been more beautiful.
And that evening, we went to dinner at the Imperial Hotel. I had contacted an old Peace Corps friend of my parents to see if he knew where they had been married. He wasn’t sure about that detail all these years later, but he remembered the reception at the Imperial. What an incredible old hotel! And a little magical to imagine our parents walking the same halls on their wedding night.
The next day started the second leg of our trip, taking us into Haryana. This part of our trip was loosely planned with great potential for awkwardness. We knew we wanted to see the villages where our parents had lived, but knew nothing about these places today. Knowing that most Indian buildings are built from local materials with no intention that they should last for more than 50 years, we expected that their homes would be gone – but even if they were still there, their journal entries were too vague to offer landmarks that would help us find them so we decided to just go wander in these strange places and see what happened. We hoped the driver that I’d hired for the next few days would speak English well enough to help us communicate, but his English was limited and he seemed baffled by our desire to go to these non-tourist sites.
Over the next three days, we visited four villages: our mother’s initial placement of Nilokheri and her final home in nearby Kurukshetra, and our father’s initial placement of Samrala (just over the border into Punjab to the north) and his final placement in Madlaude which was much closer to our mom’s villages. Their villages had always been described to us in rustic terms that were nearly unimaginable to American children. They lived in buildings made of cement blocks or mud that had steel sheets for roofs and open windows without glass, there was no indoor plumbing so they used the fields in lieu of toilets and got water from a well, they had no or little electricity and their cooks made meals for them over actual fires. Even knowing how far India has progressed in 50 years, I still sort of expected to see life in these villages looking the same. I certainly didn’t expect to see bustling, prosperous towns of 20-30 thousand people, but that’s what we found.
In each town, we walked for about 20 minutes, looking for something that felt old enough to have been there in the 60’s to anchor us to the old stories and sentiments. As we walked, people stared and sometimes followed us. In two towns, we were stopped for happy selfies, including one where I was asked to take pictures using my phone even though they knew they’d never have them themselves.
To make the most of our time in Haryana, we also looked for interesting sites nearby and definitely found them! Jesse’s research led us to the Panipat museum. We had no idea what to expect from this museum because online info is minimal and vague. While it seemed worth trying anyway, I questioned the wisdom of that as we drove around twisty dirt roads before entering a fenced area where a group of men eyed us suspiciously. Once inside, though, we knew we’d found a gem. It was hot and dusty and filled with ancient artifacts – tools, pottery, coins, art – and was amazingly well curated in English. The man who worked at the museum followed us on our tour, turning on lights and ceiling fans as we entered rooms, clearly so proud of his museum and delighted to show it to us. We were not, however, permitted to take photos inside so if you’re curious about the impact of the three battles for Panipat or how people lived during each of those eras, you’ll have to visit yourself.
Kurukshetra turned out to be a highlight of the trip. This is an area of enormous historical and religious significance. It is in the heart of the Indus-Gangetic Plain, one of the ancient cradles of civilization, and it is where the principle battle of the Mahabarata was fought and where Krishna’s guidance to Arjuna on the eve of battle was documented as the Bhagavad Gita. The town gets its name from King Kuru, an ancestor of the Pandavas and Kauravas of the Mahabarata and is frequently mentioned in the ancient puranas. You can truly feel history here. We walked around the Brahma Sarovar, a giant reservoir that locals say has always been there and was a gift from Brahma. We then visited the Sri Krishna Museum, which was outstanding – it’s huge and filled with 5,000-year-old artifacts, tons of historical info, and a series of dioramas that take you through the story of the Mahabarata in powerful detail. Much like the Panipat museum, we headed that way feeling unsure or whether this would be worth the time, and were then even more overwhelmed and awe-struck. This museum alone should be a peak tourist destination. We spent 2 1/2 hours there and could have stayed all day! After the museum, we went to Sheikh Cheili’s tomb, absolutely beautiful, but with no information in English. Still, some things are beautiful even without context. Lastly, we went to the Jyotisar Tree, one of the holiest sites in the area, where Krishna is said to have delivered his sermon of the Bhagavad Gita. We expected more fanfare here and were a bit surprised to just see a lovely old banyan tree with a very small temple.
We stayed at the Noor Mahal in Karnal and could not have been happier. It’s a really beautiful hotel, full of antiques and gorgeous details, with delicious restaurants and traditional music in the evenings. I would recommend it to anyone looking to visit this region.
This leg of the trip ended in Chandigarh, a city built in the 1950’s, designed by Le Corbusier for the newly independent country striving to modernize. For students of urban planning, this would be an great visit. For us, it was peaceful spending time on Sukhna Lake, and we got a kick out of the super quirky rock garden (a labor of love built by one man who continues to tend it), but we probably could have skipped it.
Then on to a brief visit to Bangalore. Tom and I were a bit disappointed to take Jesse to a surprisingly mediocre MTR experience – we were in the back room, ignored, and told that the food we wanted wasn’t available, only to see it served to the table next to us. We’ll return, but we’ll go earlier and be fussier about where we sit. Then we wandered around Lal Bagh (for monkey viewing), Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, the Bangalore Fort, and the beautiful Hindu temple next door. That evening, we attempted to have dinner at Burma Burma, but arrived to late for the first seating and were told that we’d have to wait an hour. Happily Fatty Bao was just down the street and able to seat us immediately for a very tasty pan-asian meal.
The next morning, Jesse and I took the train to Mysore. After checking in to the Southern Star, we walked to the Mysore Palace, always a magnificent site. En route, we were stopped by a rickshaw driver for a uniquely Indian experience – he struck up a conversation in a super friendly manner, and then told us that we shouldn’t go to the palace until 4pm when we could see the elephant pooja, and should instead go with him to a handicraft market. We told him we didn’t want to do that and he proceeded to drive along side us down the street, becoming increasingly aggressive until we finally lost him at the palace gates. After seeing the palace, we went in search of the 4pm elephant pooja and learned that there is no such thing. Hmmm . . .
Despite that earlier experience, we decided to give in to the next friendly, insistent rickshaw driver and let him take us to a part of town where people are actually engaged in heritage crafts. I was ready to be disappointed, so was particularly delighted by what we saw. At one shop, men were actually creating the gorgeous wooden inlay tables that I always admire in stores. We then watched a man making bidis, small cigarettes – sitting on the floor of his room, his fingers fly and he makes up to 2,000 of them per day. And then we went to a family run essential oil and incense shop that has been in business for 80 years. The smell was a bit overpowering, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. We finished by going to a handicraft shop (perhaps the one that our first driver was so eager to deliver us to) and did some very successful shopping.
Sanding a newly inlaid table
Wooden inlay by hand
The next day, we were off to Red Earth in Kabini, an eco-resort that manages to be simultaneously luxurious and attuned to nature. Not only are they sensitive to the ecosystem, building from all natural materials and growing all of the produce served in the restaurant, but they’re also sensitive to the local community with 98% of the staff coming from the local villages and tribes. The food was great, the surroundings were heavenly, our hut was amazing, the staff were kind, and we had a lovely time.
The only disappointment was learning that it is impossible to go on a jeep safari from Red Earth and that our only option would be a 26-seat canter. In the previous months, I had contacted them repeatedly about our desire for a jeep safari and was always told that they were first come first served and could not be guaranteed. I was pretty disappointed to then learn that they had never been a possibility in the first place. We went on the canter and enjoyed seeing langurs, deer, elephants, mongooses (mongeese?), and a sloth bear, but were disappointed that the tiger that had recently headed into the brush with her three cubs did not reemerge after the kids on our big bus made a ruckus. Still, I would recommend Red Earth heartily if you just want a stunning place to relax, or if you’re going with a big group and want to all go together on a canter.
Our trip ended quietly, back in Bangalore with dinner at home and an early flight the next morning. I’m so grateful that I got to share India with my brother, and complete a trip that I’d imagined for my whole life. And I think it would have made our parents very happy.