Travel, Food, and Slices of Life


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


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.  

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.


Getting in Deeper and Understanding I am a Part of the Problem

The personal tour angle will understandably not appeal to everyone, but consider the option when you next travel. The benefit of hiring a personal guide is that the day can be very much responsive to your likes and desires. If we had asked to see Indian art in Agra or listen to Indian music or take in a Bollywood movie, I know that is what they would have shown us.  But we wanted to see how people live…that’s our “thing.”

Bilal asked if we wanted to see a leather factory where they make shoes. He happens to know the owner, although he was unable to reach him on his phone. We had a discussion about the leather. Since cows hold a special status in Hindu culture (more on that in another blog), we wondered if they used cowhide, and yes, they do. Also, goatskin and camel leather.

Up to this point our SmartTour visits to factories were showrooms of high quality where we were served tea or something cold to drink, offered the use of the clean toilets and had the craft explained, the better to appreciate the workmanship. For some reason I expected something similar. Instead, we visited a sweatshop.

I don’t know if you remember but it seems that we hear about factory collapses or fires in India or Bangladesh or Pakistan at least once or twice a year, so it did cross my mind. The place was not large, built of concrete and about 4 stories high.

DSCF6174Workers on the ground floor were seated around two large tables putting finishing touches on Bata women’s shoes and sandals.  Each man had a repetitive task which would be automated in a western factory. Benefit here: these men have work.DSCF6175On the upper levels the workers were putting the shoes together in the earlier stages, many sitting on the floor. DSCF6179

I noticed the ceiling fans were keeping the inside temperature about what the outside was-about 90 degrees. I also noticed no heating source for the winter.DSCF6185


Although I thought I recognized the Bata name, the website indicates no stores in the US. Perhaps some shoes make it into outlets. The company has world wide distribution and this sweatshop is only one of many that have contracts to supply finished shoes.  Bilal made a comment that his friend, the factory owner, had a beautiful house as nice as the hotel lobby where he picked us up. I questioned him about the wages earned by the workers and was assured they made enough.  There is no pension plan, no insurance options, no vacation package.

In our desire to purchase clothes and other goods at the “best” price, we have long overlooked the need to support our own economy by purchasing American made goods. Here our workers make more money because we have laws to provide safe working environments, and other protections.  Our products cost more because of it.

I often read comments on Facebook about how people don’t like the way some of the big box stores limit their workers to less than full time work to avoid paying benefits and thereby cause them to require participation in public assistance programs to live. But I still see lots and lots of cars in those WalMart parking lots. People complain that they are on tight budgets and Walmart prices offers them a chance to buy the latest doodad advertised on tv.  but until each one of us curbs our own consumerism to purchase only quality American made products, we are culpable in the decline of jobs in this country as the factory owners take their work to the lowest paid people elsewhere in the world. Greed on their part to make huge profits and yes, greed on our part to buy buy buy within our budgets instead of looking at the bigger picture.


Seeing Another Side

Imagine, if you will, a nice spring day. Your main front door is open and you are letting the sun and breeze enter your home through the screen. A knock on the door is answered by your teenager and a stranger, with 3 other people, tells him, “These people are my guests and they want tea.” What would you do?Blue Lotus Chai Tea Cup

I know my inclination would be to tell them where they closest coffee (tea available) shop is located.

Imagine instead, flinging the door wide open and inviting the four strangers inside, making tea and spending an hour, your family gathered around you, listening and learning about the strangers who entered your home.

Come with me into a poor neighborhood of Agra….feel this one with me.


When Kamal and Nilal met us at our hotel and asked what we wanted to see with our personal tour with them I had thought it was all organized already. I had been in email discussion with the BuddhaPath office in Delhi and was promised a tour of a Buddhist Temple and a mediation session and then some other things. That sounded great as I have read some about Buddhism but know the real life exposure would be meaningful. But the guys had not gotten the memo.

So, basically Lisa and I told them we wanted to stay away from the tourist areas. We wanted, while staying safe, to see how people live. We also had a list of items we were trying to find for friends and wondered if they knew of any market where regular people shop that might have them.

Nilal got on his cell phone and within 20 minutes we were out the door and into the car.  We headed to an area of town SmartTours never would have wanted us to see. This was the real deal…the place where people in the middle middle and lower economic areas live, work and play.DSCF6128

Walking through the market itself was amazing with the narrow street, the moving traffic (I inadvertently walked into a moving motorcycle at one point and was vigorously told off ), the animals wandering around. The mass of humanity.DSCF6130

DSCF6243Shopping was more fun. First of all, the prices were not super-inflated for tourists to begin with. For example, I knew I did not want a sari; I would never find a real occasion to wear one, but I wanted a shalwar, an outfit with pants, tunic and scarf. I had priced one earlier in Delhi and it was over $70.  So, with some hope, we entered a shop. Open to the street with an metal overhead garage type door, the store itself was probably 15 feet wide by 20 feet deep. This was a large shop (larger than the shop with jewelry Lisa is exploring in the photo above). Shelves stacked to the ceiling were loaded with plastic bag wrapped clothing items.  With Nilal getting into the spirit of the shopping, the request was spoken, the estimate of my size was made, and the stack started growing on the counter. Every bag was opened. Every item unfolded. Soon there were about 10 choices on display.  When requested the price was given…equivalent to $40. That was better, but we already knew the system. Bartering, arm wrestling over the price, is expected. Nilal quietly asked me what I was willing to pay, Giving the equivalent in rupees at $25, he then went into his discussion in Hindi. In a few minutes it appeared I had purchased my new outfit for $15.

We hit a few more shops and made a few more purchases. In this market, unlike the ones where the tourists go, the vendors did not chase us. There was curiosity about us; we were the only Westerners on the street. But courtesy and interest was the action.DSCF6159

We wandered south along the street and crossed some railroad tracks, entering into an area where small factories lined the narrower street. Metal works included pots and pans and also what we figured were evaporative coolers similar to what is used in the American Southwest as a less expensive alternative to air conditioning.evaporative cooler factory

Nilal lead us on and then took us into a side alley. He said he hoped we could get to see the inside of a house, and then he knocked on the door, the teenager answered.  He disappeared for a few seconds (probably to check with mom) and then ushered us in.DSCF6141

After crossing the small entryway we entered into a courtyard about 10 feet by 10 feet and open to the sky above. DSCF6147To the side was a room with a few plastic outdoor chairs and several platforms of woven canvas webbing. A middle aged woman offered us the chairs and then asked Bilal in Hindi if we would like some chai. I had no idea what he had said to the teenager that we wanted tea so we looked at him and he nodded and we smiled and nodded. DSCF6144

The room filled with people and they piled on to the platforms.  The family living in the house includes a grandmother, 5 adult brothers, their wives and their children. DSCF6148We counted about 25 people and only met one of the men who was sewing in his room upstairs.  DSCF6150(When I noticed his sewing machine I immediately flashed on the family history that my mother’s father was a tailor when he immigrated to the United States in 1905 and had probably worked in a similar setting in New York before leaving the city for literally greener pastures; he became a farmer.) We learned that the family had owned the house for  at least 5 generations. That the oldest boy was soon to take his college entrance exam.

Understanding that offering them money would be an insult I told them a bit about New York City and then, using paper and pen we drew a map of the United States and showed them other places we had lived. They knew California but nothing else, including Nashville. Marketers for Music City USA would be devastated.

When asked if we would like to see the house I grabbed the opportunity (once again thinking how my house would look if strangers came to call). I watched one of the women make our chai.



The tour wound up and up and up five flights of stairs.  We poked our heads into several of the rooms and one was nicer than the others; the man must have a good paying job.

DSCF6151The boys then proudly lead us up to the roof where they have a coop with pet pigeons.


The view from the roof gave us a glimpse that life in this neighborhood is vertical and that not all is as it seems on the street level.


We talk a lot about hospitality in this country, especially in our church communities. Since 9/11 we also are very quick to think poorly about people who are Muslim. It is so easy to generalize when you don’t know anyone.

These people live at the lower end of what is considered middle class in India. Here it would be poverty level. But the house was spotless. The people were curious and friendly and involved. They had little but were very willing to share with the strangers.

How we measure riches? How do we show acceptance?

Getting off the beaten track is what Lisa and I like to do when we travel. The Taj Mahal, visited that morning, was the highlight of the trip for many in our SmartTour group. For us, the day only got better and better…..to be continued.


Group Versus Individual Travel

Neither Lisa nor I are typically group tour tourists, so deciding to purchase this trip took some consideration. Our concerns about group tours is that the itinerary may not be a good fit to our own personal interests, that the group itself may be so large that the information the guide has to offer may not be heard well because of our location in the pack, and that if any people on the tour are difficult and non-cooperative it can affect everyone’s experience. We decided to take the risk because the price was considerably less than retail rack rate would cost and the culture in India is so significantly different than my travel experience and the potential language barrier existed that a guide would be helpful.DSCF6249

It turned out very well. The tour group numbered 31 in all and while everyone had different travel experience and attitudes towards what they hoped to learn, everyone was very nice and there were no prima donnas.  One of the fears, that we would have to wait for people who were late returning to the bus, never happened.  And we managed to snag the front seat on the bus next to Arvind, our guide, which enabled us to constantly chat with him, asking lots and lots and lots and lots of questions.Arvenda

The tour schedule gave us an afternoon and evening free in Agra and another afternoon free in Jaipur.  That permitted those that wanted to take it easy to hang by the pool. And it allowed Lisa and me to go explore.DSCF6136

Based on advice I received from other people who had traveled to India I decided we would arrange for a personal tour guide for at least one of those free afternoons. By happenstance I met a farmer here in Oregon a week before my trip who was from Delhi and his brother-in-law there happens to run a licensed tour service, BuddhaPath.  While my request was a bit unusual, because of the personal connection they were happy to arrange a personal guide for our time in Agra.Nilal and Kamal

Kamal came 5 hours by bus from Delhi to join us in Agra.  India law requires when a tour is offered that an assistant is also part of the team, so Bilal joined us as well. Since he was local, he became very busy on his cell phone after talking with us, locating the places that fit the concepts we mentioned. And, in addition we had a car and driver.  The cost was $225, which is very standard for one personal guide for 4 hours wherever I have hired one (archaeologist near Mesa Verde, guide in Paris, guide in New York City and the going rate in Dubrovnik as well). These three guys started with us at 12:30 and I finally told them I was tired around 8:30. Kamal stayed with us chatting about Buddhism for another hour after we were dropped back to our hotel.  We definitely had wonderful service that I can highly recommend to anyone.

I want to share what we did that day, so stay tuned!!! It made the day, that started at the Taj Mahal better and better!!!