Our original plan for India in 2019 was to go first to Sri Lanka and then to India to the Kumbha Mela at Allahabad, the Asiatic lions in Gujarat, and the rhinos in Assam. However, I managed to break my ankle last November and then there were terrorist bombings at Easter in Sri Lanka. We rescheduled our India trip for November, cut out Sri Lanka entirely, and came to accept that we will most probably not go to the Kumbh in this lifetime. Instead, we are going to the camel fair in Pushkar, the Ganges in Rishikesh, and safari in Assam to see rhino, bonobos, and pink dolphin.
Our trip began with a first class ticket on Air Emirates from San Francisco to New Delhi, via overnight in Dubai. A chauffeur picked us up at home and smoothly delivered us to SFO, where we waited in the Air Emirates lounge. In due course we boarded our plane and were escorted to our “cabins,” two side-by-side seats complete with mini bar of water and soda; a vanity; camera views of our flight from the air plane’s nose, tail, and underside; and doors to give our cabins privacy from aisle traffic. The plane is a two-story Airbus with 14 first class, 75 business, and 500 economy seats.
Of course, as soon as we gained altitude, Barry and I had to visit the bar at the other side of business class. Our stewardess escorted us and brought a special bottle of scotch for Barry. At the bar, a very friendly French stewardess poured drinks and passengers could mingle, choose seats, or stand. Everyone took pictures.
After dinner, some movies, and a sound sleep in our Air Emirates pajamas, we woke in time to take showers on board before landing. All the amenities of shampoo, soap, lotion, etc. were provided by Bulgari. We landed in Dubai rested and refreshed at 7:30 pm on Sunday after a 15 hour flight and readily negotiated immigration and transport to Le Meridien hotel, where Air Emirates booked first and business class rooms. We had a light dinner at the hotel and slept somewhat before boarding another Air Emirates plane to New Delhi.
The smog at New Delhi obliterated everything. As we deplaned on the gangway, it smelled of smoke and the air inside the terminal seemed hazy. We found our baggage and entered India through customs. The airport was teeming with people - including lots of screaming children. Five hours later, our Air India flight took off for Jaipur on a prop plane for a short one-hour trip. We were met by an agent from Amber Tours, our travel agency in India, and driven to the Rajmahal, a Sujan boutique hotel. This was a royal palace dating from 200 years ago. We had the Princess of Wales suite, which was lovely but oddly had no windows. We only stayed the night and after breakfast the next morning met our driver for the two and half hour drive to the Amanbagh, Alwar District.
Driving in India is not for the faint of heart. “It’s like a real life video game,” our driver laughed. Motorcycles and trucks can suddenly appear driving straight at you on the wrong side of the road. There are cows and camels. Motorcycles usually carry at least three people, if not five. Trucks are so overloaded you know they’re going to tip over. And the jitneys carry as many people as they can jam in. One jitney was so packed the driver was literally half-sitting behind the wheel as the other half of his body hung out the window. The sounds of horns playing musically or staccato-like fill out the sensory experience of highway driving. Once on the local roads, we drove through small towns and saw roadside vendors, vegetable stands, and groups of school children - pretty teenage girls with ribboned loops of braided hair, boys in miraculously clean white shirts.
At the Amanbagh (an Aman hotel), we were greeted by hostesses in bright saffron saris who sang us a blessing and gifted us with string bracelets. We were shown to our small, pink bungalow and warned not to let the monkeys inside. In fact, there is a “monkey man” who walks around with a stick to shoo them off the roof and discourage them from entering the property. Nevertheless, we saw three young monkeys doing somersaults and cartwheels on the lawn outside our room.
In the evening, we were escorted to the local Hindu temple where the priest was performing evening devotions at a shrine of Hunaman, the monkey god. There was a lot of loud banging and clanging and hypnotic chanting. We left for a good meal at the hotel and a very deep sleep. It had been three days since we left San Francisco, and we welcomed this incredibly soft landing at the Amanbagh so we can recharge our systems and adjust to this ancient, beautiful country where the human spirit seems to flourish.