One of my favorite writers, the lovely JUNE KEARNS.
(Thank you June, and please drop me a note to let me know where to send your scarf.) June’s wonderful romances are available here.
My apologies for delays in announcing the winner of my towel animal survey. Personally, I consider myself the winner because Team Swan held a clear majority. However, I also promised to draw a prize winner from those who voted for the winning team. Only… I couldn’t. Apparently, the high-tech folks at WordPress are keeping actual voters a deep secret. So I took the names of everyone who stopped by, commented, or ‘liked’ the post and used the Random Name Picker to draw one name.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled blogging.
Thanks to a general strike in Odisha (as I mentioned in my last travel post here), India was closed the day we went to Puri. Most businesses were shut, and even India’s soundtrack—the nonstop cacophony of car horns—was eerily silent as our driver collected us in the pre-dawn quiet. We made the one-hour drive from Konark to Puri in (for us) a record three hours—before strike-enforcers could force us to get off the roads—so it was still morning when we stood before the reception desk at Puri’s Sterling Resort. From the flower-petal littered frontage which was even now being replaced with a different color scheme in bunting and flowers, we could tell that one giant wedding party would be leaving even as another replaced it. Wedding guests—both going and coming—took precedence, of course, so we were asked to wait.
Because…India LOVES Weddings.
Naturally, destination weddings are the bread and butter of desirable resort locations, and the Sterling Resort in Puri with its own beach frontage on the Bay of Bengal was clearly a plum. So when we were told that our check-in would be delayed by arrival and departure of busloads of wedding guests, Janine and I opted to wait by the massive pool and enjoy all the gorgeous wedding outfits while Jaya wandered off to look for birds.
And the India we thought we knew changed.
A small group of wedding guests—beautifully dressed young men and women—approached us. We expected them to ask for the usual, “Selfie, Madam?” Instead, they grabbed Janine’s hat and sunglasses, and passed them around to each other, posing for duck-face selfies and proclaiming, “I foreigner!” I was fending off grabs for my hat and shades, when an older guest spoke sharply and the group headed off, still smirking.
You have to understand. I’ve been to India many times now, and nobody is ever rude, at least not to senior foreign ladies like me. Strangers go out of their way to help, random passersby cheerfully provide directions, young people call me “Auntie”, and it’s absolutely impossible to carry my suitcase up a flight of stairs without someone demanding to carry it for me. As Jaya told me the first time I landed, “People in India are very kind.”
It made me stop and think about what else has changed just in the five years I’ve been visiting India. Here’s a (completely subjective and obviously incomplete) list.
- Trash. India’s got it. Lots. But this year we saw caravans of trucks and vans and auto rickshaws and even bikes piled to gravity-defying heights and heading, our driver told us, to massive for-profit recycling centers.
- Toilets: As a chubby senior tourist ill-equipped for the athletic squatting of the basic hole-in-the-floor facility, my earlier India trips frequently revolved around desperate searches for that most elusive of goals: the western toilet. But since PM Narendra Modi announced the Clean India initiative in 2014, a staggering 80-million plus new toilets have been built. And an equally uphill social experiment to convince people that indoor toilets are sanitary and desirable is also underway.
- GPS/SAT-NAV: The first time we were in India, I asked our driver why nobody used a satelite navigation system. He responded with a flood of (presumably) Hindi that went on passionately for several minutes. At the end, Jaya turned to us. “He says he doesn’t like GPS.” She paused, and explained. “My mother used to say your map is in your mouth.”
Our driver nodded emphatically, but we must have looked blank, so Jaya continued, “You can just ask directions. People in India are very kind.” But on this trip, every car we entered navigated by satellite.
- Transport: within the cities, the most economical transport was always auto (and occasionally human) powered rickshaw. But this trip, that was challenged by the explosion of readily available Uber-like OLA cars, whose drivers identified us via a one-time texted password (OTP).
- Technology. India adores technology, and is racing flat out for tech of every sort. Our first trip to India was an unending scramble to find affordable solutions for cellphones and communication. Just five years later, Jaya handed me a phone SIM card with a virtually bottomless data connection—and all at a fraction of what it would cost back home.
What hasn’t changed? Friendly cows still roam the streets, men casually urinate at the side of the road, roads are built by women carrying trays of stone on their heads, the food is beyond fabulous, history is referenced in millenia, art and architecture takes my breath away, and the unceasing acts of incredible generosity and kindness from Indian strangers bring tears to my eyes.