Sunday, February 19, 2017


India is a land of contracts, to say the least.  They don't appear to have zoning laws.  As a result, you see magnificent luxury buildings standing side by side with shanty towns.  The residents of the shanty towns live in squalor.  Garbage is strewn around wherever you look.  Pigs and goats roam freely through the trash, foraging for food.  Did I mention the cattle which are sacred to the Hindus.  These folks feed the cattle and presumably used them for milk, but they don't eat them. 

There are over a billion people in India, and the cities we visited, Mumbai   (Bombay), Delhi, Agra, Mangalore and Cochin are teeming with people.  India has 29 states and 7 union territories.  In ancient times, the country was named after the Indus River which flows across Pakistan which used to be part of India. 

Fashionwise, India is the only country where Nehru jackets are still in style.  Our tour bus meandered through the fetid streets and crowded markets of Mumbai.  There doesn't appear to be a lot of street crime despite what one would expect in poor areas.   Eventually, we reached a modern expressway built over the bay and then we quickly got to the airport.

Several billboards display the larger than life likeness of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is the most powerful man in the country.  He grew up poor, the son of a street vendor in Gujarat state, not far from Mumbai.  He is considered a Hindu nationalist, right wing politician who greatly upsets Pakistan.  That alone makes him popular in India.   Modi's policies are intended to achieve economic growth for India, and environmental concerns take a back seat.  For example he took action to suppress the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other human rights groups on the grounds that they interfere with economic growth.   These groups, the Muslims and others compare Modi to Donald Trump, and not in a good way.  India also has a president, but that position is largely ceremonial. 

Modi has created some controversy recently when he made a big push to convince the people to use toilets.  In India, that can be an uphill battle.  Even with government subsidies to encourage people to install them, people still have to be persuaded to use them.   Until then Indians must watch where they step.  The Untouchables will clean up the mess.

Speaking of Untouchables, in India, people live by the caste system.  These are not the Eliot Ness Untouchables.  The Indian Untouchables are also known as the Dalits (Sanskrit word for "oppressed").  We're talking millions of people.  Incidentally, today, it is illegal in India to use the term "Dalit" (the D word) to describe a class of people.  Now they are officially called "schedule caste",  The caste system dates back to ancient times, but the British Raj found the system useful in administering the country.   Essentially lower caste people could not own land and were restricted to certain menial jobs.

The way it works is that there are 4 castes.  The Brahmin (priests) are on top; then come the Kahatryla (warriors and rulers); Viasya (merchants, landowners, skilled workers) and Sudra (unskilled workers).  Then, below that are the Untouchables, or out of caste (outcasts) who were restricted to jobs like cleaning latrines, street sweeping and collecting garbage.   They were segregated from polite society.  These folks were not allowed in temples and forced to live outside of town.  It is not necessarily a racial thing because the Brahmins and the Dalits are of the same racial stock.  However, in my observation, many of the poor were dark skinned.

In India, occupations were and are handed down from father to son.  There is not a lot of upward mobility in India although the Indian government has affirmative action policies to help out the lower castes.   The Prevention of Atrocities Act was passed in 1989, but we still read about ugly situations like gang rapes.

Today there are Dalits in the legislature, and some have achieved high office, such as President and Chief Justice.   The first female speaker of the Indian legislature was a Dalit.  By and large though, the poor kids, at least the ones we saw, don't attend school, so there is not much hope they will ever improve themselves.   

The Indian government does have a welfare system, but traditionally it has been corrupt, with middlemen taking a share of the money/food intended for the poor.  The government is trying to do something about that, but obviously, much needs to be done.

Because of the squalid conditions, we were warned not to eat street food, drink only bottled water and not breathe the air.  The latter is hard to do, but many people wear masks.   The dreaded "Delhi belly" is to be avoided at all costs.  The more modern version is "New Delhi belly" which  you might catch from eating at the New Delhi deli.  Safety doesn't appear to overly concern the Indians.  We saw many unsafe conditions like excavations not roped off and no danger signs.   People have to look out for themselves.

We flew from Mumbai to Delhi on Jet Airways, a local Indian airline.  They serve you a full Indian lunch on the 2 hour flight.  I took my chances and ate the spicy curry dish with no ill effects.   Our friend Cheryl from New York also ate the food.  The rest of our traveling companions pretty much stuck to the naan bread which is like a tasty flatbread.    The naan bread is like non bread and can be compared to a tortilla.

Delhi was the capital of India for many years until they built New Delhi close by.  We stayed two nights at the 5 star Trident Hotel in Delhi.  The buffet was an epicurean delight with many varieties of meats, seafood, breads, desserts, all prepared Indian style.  Indian cooking makes generous use of rice, lentils and curries.  Many dishes are vegetarian, but lamb and chicken are popular.  Most dishes are served with pungent sauces. 


No visit to India is complete without seeing the Taj Mahal.  It is located in Agra in the North Central part of the country in Uttar Pradesh state.  We took a high speed train South from Delhi.  The train station in Delhi is an experience by itself.   Thousands of people pass through the station each day, and keeping it clean is a futile job.  The trains generally run on time.  Most Indians get around by train if at all possible.  As our train waited in the station, another train was pulling out, and I saw several men quickly sneak onto that train while it was moving. 

We had our own railroad car at the back of the train for the 120 people on our tour.  The train car has seen better days but it is functional though not luxurious.  On the back of the car is a bathroom with a hole in the floor and outlines of where to put your feet when you do your business.  I'm not sure what they do for No. 2.  On the other end of the car was an "American" style bathroom with an actual toilet for the women. 

To our surprise, they serve you a full lunch on the train, but we had just eaten on the airplane and after watching the sights, we were in no mood to eat.   The train pulled out of the station and cruised through the outskirts of Delhi where we could observe how the Indians live, and it isn't pretty.   The effluvia is everywhere.  Were talking run down shacks with tin roofs.  Most of the people burn trash out in front of their homes, apparently for cooking..  Plastic bags don't burn efficiently so they accumulate near the tracks.  To me, it seems like the government could hire thousands of idle people to pick up trash, but they don't.  Many of the people tend small garden plots to raise food.  In the countryside, people worked the fields without equipment.  Cattle roamed freely among the people.  We even saw a large sow with her piglets foraging through the garbage. 

In the countryside, the train picked up speed, eventually going over 100 mph, but had to slow down when  entering a town because of people and animals milling about near the tracks.   I was amazed this ancient train could go that fast.

In Agra, a tour bus took us from the train station to a transfer point a few blocks from the Taj Mahal.  Then we had to transfer to a smaller, electric powered bus, probably for security reasons, to get to the Taj.  When we arrived, we were besieged by an army of peddlers and panhandlers, shoving trinkets in our faces.  The panhandlers are pathetic.  Most are missing limbs or handicapped in some other way, some severely.  I'm not sure what kind of safety net is provided by the government for these people, but the idea here is to make you feel so bad you hand them a few Rupees.  From my considerable experience with panhandlers, if you give to one, many others will magically appear out of nowhere.

The Taj Mahal is magnificent, of course.  It looks just like the pictures.  Often it is partially obscured by smog which is everywhere in India.  The Indians burn coal and garbage, and this stuff gets in your lungs and permeates everything.  Fortunately, the day we visited, the smog cleared up somewhat and we got a good view of the structure. 

The 4 minarets framing the main building are not physically connected to it.  The architects recognized that Agra is in an earthquake zone and didn't want a quake to topple them onto the main structure.  The building is remarkably well constructed for a 17th Century building.  The architects noted that the soil is sandy, and they sank caissons down to the bedrock to support the building.  That was revolutionary for the time.

The 231 foot high Taj Mahal is constructed of white marble which is quarried locally.  The structure is a fusion of Indian and Persian architecture.  The marble was decorated by local craftsmen who carved intricate inlay designs decorating them with semi precious stones.  You can't see them except up close.  There are other buildings in the complex including a museum, but we didn't visit them.

Shah Jahan built the Taj as a mausoleum to his queen, Mumtaz Mahal who died in 1631 at age 38 shortly after giving birth to her 14th child.   It was a love story, although the Royal Emperor had other wives also.  Her last wish to her husband was that he construct a beautiful and incomparable monument over her grave as a token of their worldly inseparable love (her words, not mine).  This was a classic jobs program.  It took 20,000 laborers 22 years to finish the Taj Mahal. 

There was a fair amount of intrigue inside the palace.  Shah Jahan was eventually deposed by his son Aurangreb who placed him under house arrest in Agra Fort.  He was held in the Burj Muasamman tower with a marble balcony and a view of the Taj Mahal.  After he died, the government rehabilitated him and placed his body in the mausoleum next to his queen.

Agra was the capital of the Moghul Empire in Medieval times.  Moghul as in Genghis Khan.  The imposing 94 acre Agra Fort was the residence of the Moghul emperors until 1638 when they moved the capital to Delhi.   The fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.    In effect, the fort is a walled city.  It occupies the high ground and from the back one has a commanding view of the countryside and the Taj Mahal, about a mile and a half away.   On the way from the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort, I stopped at McDonalds for a snack. 


Our bus drove us back from Agra to Delhi on the Interstate, at least the Indian version, and traffic was light until we got to Delhi.   The distance is about 140 miles.   The traffic in Delhi as well as in Mumbai, is horrendous.  Delhi is incredibly congested, and the last 20 miles through the city can take 2 hours.  A three lane highway becomes 5 lanes with drivers cutting in and out.  Many people drive motor scooters which can squeeze between lanes, obviously very dangerous.  As I said earlier, safety is not a big concern in this part of the world.       To get us back to the hotel more quickly, our bus detoured off the main highway to see the capital complex in New Delhi.  We passed the prime minister's house and the legislature. 

The people got used to Delhi, and then they came out with a new version, Delhi 2.0, or New Delhi.  In contrast to Old Delhi, New Delhi was built by the British in the early 20th Century and became the capital of India in 1947.  The two cities together, comprising the National Capital Territory, are enormous with over 16 million people. 

To return to our cruise ship, we flew Jet Airways from Delhi, back to Mumbai and change planes to Mangalore in the Southern part of India.   We later learned there is a direct flight from Delhi to Mangalore, but apparently Celebrity determined it cheaper to fly the long, indirect way.   In Mumbai, the airline made a decision to keep us on the same plane.  However,  we had to change seats to correspond with our boarding passes for the second flight.   Most of us had bags stored in the overhead compartment   The other passengers got off the plane, and they started loading the plane with the new passengers before we got a chance to find our new seats and move our overhead bags.  The result was bedlam. 

The new passengers were about 80 Muslim pilgrims, mostly old women dressed like nuns and missing teeth.  These Indians were hostile.  They had sharp elbows and didn't hesitate to use them while pushing their way through the narrow aisle.  The women were illiterate and could not read their boarding passes.  Our friend Cheryl from New York took charge.   She stood in the aisle, and these women assumed she worked for the airline.   They would show her the boarding passes, and she would point out the correct seat. Order was restored.

Indians, at least the civil servants are very bureaucratic.  You must sit in the seat corresponding to your boarding pass--or else.  Security is tight.  They check your tickets and boarding passes at every turn.


Cochin is located in Kerala state in the South of India.  Culture is different in Cochin than in the Northern part of the country.  The weather is hot and steamy, even in January.  Cochin is tolerant to many religions.  Cochin has a Jewish presence thousands of years old.  Many of the Hindu buildings have 6 pointed stars engraved in them.  Although the star is similar to the Star of David, it is also a Hindu symbol.  Some of the Cochin Christians were thought to be Jews who were converted by the disciple St Thomas who traveled there in ancient times.  Many of their customs are similar to those of the Jews. 

We drove through Kerala state on the way to the coast, taking in the sights.  To our surprise we saw numerous Christian churches and schools.   Near the coast are waterways and canals on which thousands of people live on houseboats, many of which are elaborately decorated.   Others rent out their houseboats to tourists like us, sometimes for days at a time.  We took a pleasant cruise for an hour or so through the backwaters of Kochi observing how people in this area live. 

One restaurant promoted its "homely" food on a billboard.  We didn't stop in but we guessed the presentation would be less than attractive. 

Cochin got its name from the fact that it was like China.  For centuries, Cochin has been a cosmopolitan city, a key trading center with the Arabs and the Chinese.  The Jews' presence in Cochin goes back to the days of King Solomon.  They were called the Malabar Jews and their merchants were very prosperous.  They controlled the pepper trade.   The ancient Jews were dark skinned but those who came from Europe in the Middle Ages were light skinned and called the Paradisi ("foreign Jews) or "White Jews". 




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