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Travel, Food, and Slices of Life


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Holy Cow! Well, Maybe Revered would Be a Better Word

source: Nancy Leung SmarTours

source: Nancy Leung SmarTours

With respect for all life a central theme in Hindusim, the cow has achieved a special status in Indian society.  The beginnings of this practice is not clear but generally, with cows providing milk that nurtures, they are known as “the mother of civilization.”  DSCF6296

Even in days when sacrifices to the gods included oxen and bulls, lactating cows were always protected. Now, the role of the cow providing, milk, butter and dung for fires continues to maintain the taboo of harming the animals. Arvind described how the cow patties are collected early each morning and combined with straw to be shaped for fuel.  We saw stacks drying as we drove from Agra to Jaipur.DSCF6300

Cows that wander in large cities are typically past the ability to give milk and have been abandoned.  They spread trash by foraging for food

source: Nancy Leung SmarTours

source: Nancy Leung SmarTours

and cause significant snarls with traffic.traffic

Efforts are being made to move stray cows from the streets of Delhi into more suburban or rural locations, but their presence was almost  everywhere on our trip.


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Desire for Change

The world’s largest democracy is in the middle of a huge election that is expected to make major changes in the nation. India, which became a republic in 1947, has over 500 million voters.  As the country is large and polling places are located within 2 kilometers of every registered voter even in rural areas, it takes a while for the process to be completed.  This map shows when the various states have held their election and since much of the voting is processed with paper ballots, it is expected we will hear the results in July.

source: Maps of India

source: Maps of India

With a population where only 25% of people can read, campaigning is beginning to increase with the use of television ads. The expected winner of the prime minister election, Nerendra Modi, started a couple of years ago so his name would be recognizable.  He has traveled the country more than any other candidate as well, with over 430 public meetings, 1400 telecasted rallies and  4000 ‘chai pe charcha’ (chat over tea) at small local tea stalls, making sure the voters got his message for change.

source: namomantra.org

source: namomantra.org

Modi’s campaign message has appealed to many people as he has argued that the current and prior governments have been corrupt and funds for improvements that would make life better for most have been squandered. His mass appeal to the working and middle classes has resulted in about a 60% voter turnout.

source: The Guardian

source: The Guardian

Because of the low literacy rate, all candidates are clearly identified with a symbol throughout the campaign process.

INdian votingVoters receive an indelible dye mark on the base of one fingernail. It takes several weeks to fade and thereby eliminates voting fraud.

We visited Delhi and Agra during voting days and noticed political rallies and parades. We passed one large rally location and also noticed the presence of a couple of television news trucks at one place we visited; Arvind opined that they were setting up early for a photogenic shot of a candidate.

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Once more, the people and process in India, while somewhat different in specifics, have dramatic similarities to our own desires and frustrations here in the States. No matter who the ruling party is, the mass of people generally feel left out of the process and the hope for improvement is a continuing desire.


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What’s Your Karma?

Over the eons that man has been on the earth, there always has been some craving for making sense of the wonderment that is the earth,  all it offers, and our own role on it.  There are so, so many interpretations of a Higher Power, by whatever name. My own sense of questioning came early but it probably developed more in the time I have been married to Graham, attending church with him.  In listening to the Christian interpretation of God, in participating in numerous book and study groups, I can see there is more in common than different. What fools we mortals be, fighting over the “right” way.religious-symbols_2

Visiting India brought me a closer view of several Eastern religions than ever before (and also learn not to react to the immediate gut reaction to the swastika.) Since Karma is a huge part of both Hindusim and Buddishm, I will try to give you a very very cursory explanation. I brought home books on Buddhism and Hinduism that were recommended by two of the guides and am learning a lot.  I’ll describe our visit to a Hindu Temple in another post and how I recognized some symbols in common with Christianity and Judaism.

Identified as one of the world’s oldest religions, Hinduism was developing in India about the same time as we estimate Abraham was knocking over the idols and developing the concept of monotheism that later developed into Judaism and off-shot Christianity and Islam.  So, it is similar in that it predates written records and the beliefs have only been codified thousands of years after development of an ethical system.

The main concept of Hindusim is that our beliefs determine our thoughts and attitudes about life, which in turn direct our actions. By our actions, we create our destiny.  

It is reasonable to enjoy life and all it offers. There is clear evidence in the development of the Kama Sutra that Hindus have no sexual hangups, but recognize that sex is part of life. Arvind shared that in the early adult years it is encouraged to build a good life, providing well for your family.

This phase changes once the children are married and then it is time to prepare for the spiritual part of life. All the actions done up to this point and through the remainder of this lifetime will determine how the soul will be reborn in the next lifetime.

Hinduism is not the only religion that believes in rebirth of the soul.  Although some religions do not adhere to this simple outlook, most faiths ask us to believe that we are more than mortal flesh and blood. If you are religious, you believe profoundly that your soul connects you to God.  You also have some concept that the struggle of the soul, whether it is cast down and troubled or joyous and raised in triumph, is the life of spirit. And it seems to me that in Christianity, there is hope that if your life here has been troubled, that there is a spiritual reward awaiting you.

I’ve always casually considered karma to simply be payback, what goes around comes around. A person who does bad things will eventually have bad things happen to them.  In Hinduism karma is a Sanskrit word that means “deeds”.  Your deeds in this lifetime may not have a result in this lifetime, but it may accrue and not be until the next lifetime that your karma plays out. You may, if you are truly bad, come back as a lower lifeform, and have little chance of ever evolving into a higher lifeform in future lives.4743690099_karma_xlarge

The purpose of life in Hinduism is to minimize bad karma in order to enjoy better fortune in this life and achieve a better rebirth in the next. The ultimate spiritual goal is to achieve release (moksha) from the cycle of samsara altogether. It may take hundreds or thousands of rebirths to get rid of all of one’s accumulated karma and achieve moksha. The person who has become liberated (attained moksha) creates no more new karma during the present lifetime and is not reborn after death.

There is no proof for karma and this cycle of rebirth. There is also no proof against it. Same can be said for any religious belief, even yours. We tend to go on faith, all of us. Be find….work on YOUR karma.


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Privacy? What’s That?

When I was young my family camped in a huge World War II surplus canvas tent for 6. My dad and mom were on one side and my sisters and I on the other. We traveled the country this way from 1957 to 1965 when we transitioned to the comfort of a Ford Econoline camper van conversion. our van on daytona beach fl

My dad would intone “close your eyes” and being dutiful daughters, we would comply. He would dress and exit the tent or camper, giving the rest of us privacy to then get up and going.  Years later, in a way too frank discussion with my mom, I also learned that adult activities went on a few feet away from my slumbering body.

That is the closest I can relate to what I realized is pretty normal in India. There is no privacy as we know it. In fact, it is beyond that. There is no CONCEPT of privacy as we know it.

The family we visited in the poor section of Agra sleep four or five to a small room. They share two small hole-in-the-floor toilets with water hose connections for bathing.  I suspect those children have a lot better concept of “adult activities” than I did at their age.

And this guy was not unique by any means. I’m just sort of glad I never noticed anyone defecating in public.DSCF6490a


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Dead Before I Was Born, He Shaped Events in My Life

When we think of people throughout history who have influenced human events the numbers narrow. When we place a moral judgement that that person had an overall GOOD influence, the list reduces even more.  It was with humble pleasure that we got to visit two sites affiliated with Mohandas Ghandi while in Delhi.

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

Ghandi was born in 1869 to educated parents (his father was a government minister, his mother influenced him with her Hindu religious practices that included self-discipline and non-violence).  At that time India had been part of the British Empire for over 100 years.  Ghandi went to London to study law.  He took a position in South Africa and bore the brunt of considerable discrimination both in the courts as well as general life. It was during this time he began to develop his practice of satyagraha (“truth and firmness”), or passive resistance, as a way of non-cooperation with authorities.

DSCF5954Ghandi returned to India in 1914 and supported Great Britain during World War I but soon after he began to build the movement for independence.  As part of the political independence he strongly advocated, he realized that economic independence was necessary and helped develop an inexpensive spinning machine that helped cottage industry turn cotton into thread, the first step to weaving fabric and making clothes.DSCF5952

At a Delhi model of the Calcutta ashram we saw the simple way Ghandi lived and worked. The docent there also showed us how the spinning machine works and Lisa discovered it was not an immediately achievable skill.DSCF5959

Through boycotts of British businesses, hunger strikes and other nonviolent methods, Ghandi went on to build the political movement to independence, which occurred in 1947. At that time, Great Britain decided to partition the Indian subcontinent into Muslim (Pakistan) and Hindu (India) areas.   Ghandi was against partition, believing that all the people of the land could learn to work together. He was advocating having the various political leaders that practiced the major religions alternate as Prime Minister and had urged that the first Prime Minister should be Muhammed Al Jinnah instead of Jawaharlal Nehru.  Ghandi was assassinated by a fellow Hindu in January 1948 who believed strongly in partition, Jinnah became Pakistan’s first Prime Minister and Nehru went on to lead India.ghandi

Although Ghandi never held public office, his influence on the modern development of India’s political and social system was profound.  Additionally he influenced others. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela followed the principles to break apartheid and here in the United States, Martin Luther King used Ghandi’s nonviolent methods to force the evolution of civil rights of African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.DSCF5921

Ghandi’s memorial site is both beautiful and simple. Crowded with school children on the say we visited, it was a moment of peace and calm and thoughtful contemplation in a very busy week.DSCF5927

 

 


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Love Your Neighbor

The people here in McMinnville, Oregon, our new home since September, do an amazing job feeding the hungry. Four evenings a week the Episcopal Church, St. Barnabus, serves dinner. Other days are covered by other churches in town.  Typically, each meal serves about 300-350 people, including take-out meals.  The annual total at St. Barnabus is very close to the population of this city, 33,000.  The need is high, even here in Oregon where the economy seems to be so much healthier than West Virginia where we had been living.DSCF5875

Imagine my reaction when our tour in India included a Sikh Temple.  After receiving head coveringsDSCF5873 and removing our shoes,DSCF5874we wandered around admiring the architecture, bathing pool,DSCF5881 and listening to the chanting, which had tonations that reminded me of Torah chanting. (Something to look into, as the Sikh religion is about 500 years old and when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the people moved west into Europe and east into Asia…would be an interesting study to understand the influences of how the Sikh religion started.)DSCF5887

Then Arvind lead us into the soup kitchen and we learned they feed the hungry three meals a day, a total of 22,000 people each and every day. DSCF5905

We saw volunteers chopping vegetables DSCF5906

baking the chapati DSCF5899to serve with the vegetable curry simmering in huge vats. DSCF5898

Don’t get hung up on the fact that this work is done on the floor; yesterday’s blog should have brought you up to speed that the concept of sanitation is very different in India. Focus, instead, on the service being done.  Pretty amazing.


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We Want to Fix It

I don’t know about you but it seems we Americans feel superior to just about everyone else and act like we know the “right” way to do things.  And we get ourselves deep into trouble with that attitude much of the time.

On the trip to India there were several things I noticed that jumped right out at me and my first thought was “Why do they do that?” followed by “If only they did what we do” and that was followed by “There must be a reason I don’t understand.” I moved in the right direction I think.

 

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First thing was on the bus ride from Delhi to Agra. It had rained lightly that morning and Arvind pointed out to all of us that the wheat was being harvested and it was a very bad time for rain, as it could cause it to mold. Over the course of the week we saw other fields in various stages of harvesting. I have no idea how this crop yield was compared to past years but I did ask a lot of questions about rain and irrigation and why this and why that. Arvind didn’t know, but I asked a local farmer who happens to be from Delhi since I’ve been back in Oregon and got some answers.

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This photo is actually of grass being trimmed at the Taj Mahal but it appeared that the wheat was being harvested the same way-just too far from the highway to get this good a photo.

In West Virginia and in Oregon I have seen a number of plastic collection barrels connected to building downspouts, the better to collect rainwater and save it for use later during dry months. India has long had an agricultural economy and about 75% of its rainfall occurs during the monsoon season.  Typically expected from June to September, the area where I traveled can experience about 20-40 inches of rain in that time.  I wondered why some water was not captured for use in other seasons when the dry weather limits crop production.

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Narenda Varma of Our Table in Sherwood, Oregon told me:

Traditionally, most of the farms in that area would have been dry-land farming.  However, in recent decades (since the so called “green revolution” was implemented in many parts of the world), much of the agriculture has moved to high-yield varieties that are not suited to dry-land farming and require a lot of irrigation. Part of the green revolution implementation involved the government convincing farmers to switch to the new varieties and provided funding for the installation of wells as well as subsidized diesel to run the pumps. The result has been a disaster because the new varieties require a lot of fertilizer and water both of which have contributed to massive salination and destruction of the soil as well as precipitously falling water tables. 

As for rain-water harvesting, it is generally impractical to store water at the scale needed for commercial agriculture in a climate like India (or Oregon) where we have concentrated periods of heavy rain followed by almost drought-like conditions. Storage in tanks or ponds is very expensive and requires a lot of land which most small land-holders don’t have. The best solution would be to increase the water-storage capacity of the soil by having high organic matter content in the soil but the green revolution varieties have resulted in the exact opposite result so the soil doesn’t hold water as well as it used to (or could) thereby exacerbating the problem.  It’s a complex issue but one that is depressingly familiar to agriculture all over the world in the last 50+ years.

Thank you Narenda for helping to clarify that. One more example of why one size does not fit all.

The water issue is complex in India…more on that later in another blog.

Another issue that was hard to understand was the amount of trash everywhere.  It appears that trash disposal is handled in two ways: 1. There are vacant lots which are considered to be dumps and anything can be thrown there and 2. Anything can be thrown into gutters or any moving body of water.DSCF6450

What this means is there is trash almost everywhere. Oh sure, not in the nice areas of Delhi near the government center and monuments.  Not at the World Heritage sites and other places where tourists go. But just outside, fair game.

As we drove between cities I missed several photo opportunities that have stuck in my mind. One was a dry riverbed, littered with debris. The other was a huge dump, close to the highway, piles reaching up 20-30 feet in the air. And the rest of the town was clean. That town was making an effort.DSCF6537

It appears from reading other comments on the Internet that if a city has a municipal waste collection system it does not resemble anything we are used to here in the US. We are, once again, spoiled in the regard that we put our trash or recycling bins out at the curb once a week or so and a truck comes by and removes the offending debris. It is then whisked away to some dump that is screened from our view, with rules to control vermin and protect ground water from pollution.

On the bus, we almost all expressed an immediate dismayed response to the trash we saw. But, as I mentioned above, we also had our “ah-ha” moment when we realized that we have no right to expect to impose our standard on the people of India.  While we can recognize that they are living in environments that would make us uncomfortable, there is a lot more information to learn before we can understand why their system is not cleaner.  We have to recognize we just do not know all we need to know to judge.


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Driving Miss Daisy

India is a large country and although we visited cities in pretty close proximity, they were about 150-200 miles apart. With our Interstate highway system and posted speeds of 65, that would take 2 to 3, maybe 4 hours. Our experience in India was a bit different.triangle

A new highway between Delhi and Agra took us about 4 hours. It was a new  four-lane divided highway with tolls, and truck traffic was not allowed. There was very light traffic and yet the bus was restricted to drive about 40mph. There was a high concern about the tires overheating and bursting, and we stopped for a half hour to let them cool about halfway along the route.  There were several toll plazas and a rest area located just beyond each. We enjoyed the use of some “clean toilets”, as Arvind assured us, and the snack bar offered some light food. Lisa and I bought some packaged ice cream. I was told my  flavor was pistachio; it wasn’t.rest stop food

That was the best road we traveled. The other main highways were also toll roads but had heavy traffic of all kinds going through the center of towns and sometimes the roadway was not paved. But they all were toll roads. DSCF6283It was not unusual for the bus driver to have to move along at 25mph to navigate not only the trucks and jeeps loaded with people hanging on,DSCF6286 but also occasional hand pushed carts, a camel or an elephant.  People seem to use the roadway as a walking path as well.

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And cows. More about cows later.traffic

Because of the British occupation of India, traffic moves on the left side of the roadway. I have driven in the United Kingdom, and it took a lot of constant concentration to stay to the left, especially in round-abouts and for turns.  I have driven in many of the major cities in the United States. I remember my great satisfaction after driving in Manhattan at age 20 and being able to be as aggressive as required to maneuver. And yet, I would NEVER assume I could drive in India.traffice

There seem to be few rules. There seem to be more cars spread across the roadway than the number of lanes.  Red lights were ignored often by our driver; other times he stopped. Cars on the right often made left turns and similar cross movements occurred from the left side of the roadway. Yet, we saw few accidents. Arvend said automobile insurance is required and at the time of an accident there is a lot yelling and handwaving and then everyone goes their own way without any sharing of information.  It sounded like the system operates as “no fault”.trafficc

DSCF6543Drivers’ licenses are purchased.  There is some discussion now that driving tests will be given but no written test to prove knowledge of the rules of the road is part of the process.  Cars are pretty expensive and gasoline runs about $1.50 a liter. Most people ride motorcycles and it was not unusual to see a family of 4 or even 5 on the back of a bike, the woman riding sideways because of her sari.DSCF6485

One rule that does seem to apply is the request for honking. Some car and truck bumpers even have the “Please Honk” or “Sound Horn” sign painted on the back of the vehicle. This system helps them know when someone is approaching to pass; the assumption is no one looks in the rear view mirror.DSCF6488

At the end of our tour we tipped Arvend, his assistant (who cleaned the bus at least three times each day, moved our baggage and made sure there was plenty of ice cold water for sale for us) and the driver. I gladly gave the driver his tip, telling him despite the traffic conditions, I never felt uncomfortable with the safety of his driving.   


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Object: Matrimony

Customs and rituals for young people meeting and deciding to get married vary considerably around the world, but the American or western model, even though it results is a lot of poor decision making and high divorce rates, are becoming more and more adapted elsewhere, even in traditional cultures like India where modern attitudes are wanting to opt for “love matches”.Arvenda

Arvind, our SmartTours guide, filled part of an hour on a long drive between cities explaining how traditional practices have been updating in India.  Although he spoke mainly from a Hindu perspective, it was apparent that many Muslims also follow a similar practice.

Traditionally, marriages are arranged. Like historic matches in western culture, most of the time the family or a family friend who knows both young people starts the conversation.  In India, however, astrology plays a huge part. People know their birthplace, of course, and birth time down to the second.  If the two people’s horoscopes are compatible, the discussion continues. If not, everyone agrees to move on.

If you have never really learned about astrology you might think it is merely the short 3 sentence section for your sign that shows up in the paper or in your internet feed. The warning or wisdom may amuse you or worry you but that is not what a true horoscope is. Your chart is prepared based on your birthplace and time and can provide guidance for financial matters, work, raising children, and relationships. This website gives more information about how astrology provides information about relationships.

A skeptic may scoff at the idea of using a tool like horoscopes to help select a spouse, but before we make fun of it, perhaps we should look at our own customs and then difficulties in marriage here and then compare to the Indian standard.  Here in the US we tend to equate sexual attraction and lust with love and are typically unable to develop friendships with the ability to communicate. So we get ourselves into a legal commitment that, for many, becomes increasingly aggravating as partners are unable to work through differences.  Divorce rates of first marriages are about 50% now, with second and third marriages also failing at higher rates. We don’t learn from our mistakes. Most of us chose our partner based on emotions instead of logic and then are surprised when emotions lead us to uncomfortable areas. In India the divorce rate is about 1%. Maybe there is something to an arranged marriage.

So, to use some method to help determine compatibility makes some sense. It also helps that traditionally, there is an attitude of a life-long marriage in India. The young people know they don’t know each other and know that they had better make it work for the long haul.  They start slowly and when you notice a young woman wearing red bangles, often with a young man standing a little apart, you can assume they are in their first 3 weeks of marriage.Wedding Chura and Bangles (10)

That is not to say all is good. Although protected by law, culturally in a marriage women seem to have a lower status than men. They leave their childhood home and generally move in with the husband’s family.  They are lucky if they have a private room for sleeping. I will discuss “privacy” in another blog, but right now suffice it to say that is there a huge difference in what privacy means in Indian culture compared to the US.  When family attitudes are good and healthy, it means also that everyone in the large household helps the new couple adjust to each other and work through issues, as they have learned to in their own marriages.

New traditions have begun to pop up. Arvend entertained us by reading Want Ads that are published weekly throughout India. Besides the important birth information, the ads usually indicate the desire for education level, modern vs traditional attitudes,  location for living and social standing.matrimonial ads

While we were in India there were several auspicious days for weddings, so we got to observe some of the wedding parades and one wedding was held in the hotel our first night in Delhi.  Red and gold seem to be the classic colors, although other colors are also used.

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source: Nancy Leung from our SmartTours group

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source: Nancy Leung from our SmartTours group

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source: Nancy Leung from our SmartTours group

INdianwedding horseWe saw a number of grooms riding on white horses, also decked out in red and gold. Tubas and drums are used in the parade, there are usually fireworks, and the celebration can go on for days, often costing tens of thousands of dollars. Large wedding centers are quite busy on auspicious days and floats are rented for other celebrations not held in posh hotels or party places.

Wedding parade band float seen from the bus in Agra

Wedding parade band float seen from the bus in Agra

Even in the back streets of Agra, when Lisa and I were wandering with our private guides, we noticed some tubas ready for the busy auspicious day. wedding tubas


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The REST of the Day

While at the shoe factory Lisa requested use of the bathroom, telling them that she was okay using a non-Western toilet. She has traveled in other Asian countries and the use of the facility, not its style, was what was important. The factory people were aghast, however. We probably were the only Western people who had ever visited and it was, after all, a building that was not well maintained and all the employees were men. Probably a bit…unclean.

While toilet paper was not typically provided, there always was a spigot with a hose attachment for cleaning.

While toilet paper was not typically provided, there always was a spigot with a hose attachment for cleaning.

So we headed out, and Bilal instructed the driver where to go to a nearby friend’s house. Soon we had pulled off a typically busy street and were in a very quiet neighborhood. On one side of the street was some vacant land, occupied by some tents. When asked if they were “homeless” we were informed they are a remnant of nomadic group of blacksmiths.

nomadic tents

Across the street were homes that were a bit newer than most we had seen.  We pulled up to one and I saw

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which of course tickled me and I knew Graham would have enjoyed this meeting.  The professor was not at home but his wife happily greeted us, showed Lisa the bathroom (also non-Western but very clean) and then proceeded to offer us drinks and snacks.  Bilal had escorted his younger sister there for tutoring when she was in high school and it was apparent there was a lot of affection between Mrs. Sharma and him.DSCF6189I asked to see her kitchen and it was only a bit larger than the one in the poorer home, but had a counter.  She also had a refrigerator located in an adjacent room.DSCF6190This view of an upper-middle-class home allowed us to compare again, with our own.  It was obviously better than most people have there and would have been comfortable enough for our own living, but still did not have features we are very used to here in the US.

DSCF6196The adventure continued after that. Lisa was on a mission to purchase ayerveda medicine for a friend. While Arvind, our SmartTour guide felt we could go to any pharmacy, Bilal once again got on the phone and found out that there was a small place in another market.  The driver found his way there and we wandered around, looking for the Indian herbal shop.  Once again, the guides opined that we were the only Westerners who had been in that section of town.  
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While the guides had not expected to purchase anything, I noticed they both got into animated conversation with the shop owner and soon everyone was carrying away parcels.

DSCF6204(Side note: Lisa has delivered the medicine to her friends who declared the pain was definitely eased! Ayervedic herbals medicines have been in use for thousands of years and, like Chinese herbs, can prove to be an effective alternative to Western medicine.)DSCF6202

Our next mission was also amusing to the guides at first, and then they understood our intent. Whenever I travel, where-ever I travel, I like to visit the local grocery store. Even here in the US it can be interesting to see regional foods that are not sold where I live. We had asked Arvind if there were supermarkets in India and he told us no, but sure enough, Bilal and the driver soon had found one.

It was about the size of what I have seen in New York City, maybe 5 or 6 aisles wide. Lisa and I were not quite sure what we would buy when we entered, but as soon as we saw the packaged spices we knew we had hit paydirt! I spent the equivalent of $10 and Lisa spent about $20 and we walked out with two large sacks of spices and spice mixes to bring home the flavor of India.

 

food show and tellAfter asking the guides to find a “regular” place to eat supper and enjoying a meal with them, we had them bring us back to the hotel. By that time we had spent over seven hours with them, introduced to areas that tourists don’t see and getting a wonderful view of real life. A fantastic experience and well worth the extra cost….remember when you travel, cost is what you pay. Value is what you gain.