There are trips that are within us always, we would like to travel and do refer to that time, perhaps because we feel inadequate to learn an experience that appears to our understanding, perhaps because we understand that our consciousness can never touch the heart and hidden secret of India. There are trips that grow within us as children, until there comes a day when we have to satisfy their desire for existence bringing them to fruition where every part of life is value for money.
I put in a backpack two small books of Tagore, the shining pearl of Lipika and persuasive teachings of the true essence of life, travelling companions that will prove valuable.
We arrived in Delhi early in the morning, an immense city constantly embroiled in perennial chaotic traffic. We get to the hotel in a dark alley in the heart of the bustling city. Our guide after giving us a quick look, and gets back to me saying, This is useless. I'll take you to see the real India. This attitude full of promise immediately wins me.
First stop the Jami Masjid. We are the only tourists, with some group of local visitors, a constant that will accompany us during most of the way and that adds value at a time when it is rare move in tranquillity. In the porch to the left of the main pilgrims rest in the shade, and eat food they have especially home cooked, as they lie on the floor for a few moments of nap.
From that point of view raised, the mosque stands on a rocky outcrop in fact, I can watch the frantic swarm of the old city, its lopsided palaces, rickshaws and shops, the maze of alleys in which shortly thereafter we will dive. We stop in front of the alleys almost fearful of the chaotic vitality, a tortuous maze that meanders here and there as if we were looking for something unknown , to use an expression of Tagore.
An acrid smell assails us not to abandon more. We walk a long distance, and we see the food sizzle in the blackened pans, artisans at work in their shops, sellers almost prey to a strange indolence that draws mysterious trajectories in their eyes.
We come back in the car and head to the most important monument in Delhi, where the archaeological park stands the minaret of Qutb Minar. We go back to the city center. The driver demonstrates his skill at the wheel. The streets clogged with a tangle of vehicles, new generation cars manufactured in India, such as Tata, widespread in the country, next to dilapidated buses and auto rickshaws that are gradually replacing those pedals.
Our guide tells us that many years ago there were the Fiats, while today they are almost gone. On the street there are no rules, except to sound continuously to warn of its presence. Tricycles here and there carry three sometimes four or even five passengers. The police usually turn a blind eye, or is ready to be bribed by a tip.
At traffic lights women wrapped in traditional sari sell flowers and fruits. One approaches the face to the glass of our car, immediately followed by her child. For a few rupees buy a bunch of flowers. Everything here is great, as to prove something, and certainly less authentic.
The mammoth and lush richness of the narrative overlaps the experiences so far, a fresco of which I try to replace the pieces, but fail completely. I hear an echo in my soul that hint of lost illusions that hovers, that strange mixture of fantasy and reality that appears to me as the peculiar element of this land.
We return to the hotel. A dinner plunders thoroughly the Indian side of the thali meal, with its bright colours, its smells and its exotic and spicy reddish sauces, because the journey is a total experience of the body and spirit. Although exhausted we drag out for one last look at the city. We move through the local market. Immediately sellers around us, start showing us the most diverse goods as I purchase some metal statuettes for a few rupees, including an image of tiny Shiva depicted as cosmic dancer who captures my imagination.
The following morning our guide offers us the first unscheduled gift. We arrive in front of the dazzling whiteness of the Sikh temple. Indeed the atmosphere it immediately wins. We take off our shoes, socks and also in a special room, before entering the temple we getting our feet wet as if we were in the pool. We wear the traditional colourful scarves on the head, which are offered to us at the entrance. This barefoot walk fills me with a great sense of freedom primitive, so much so that I avoid the routes prepared to step on the bare marble.
Once inside we sit cross-legged in a corner, as a form of respect, observing the faithful genuflect to the ground, while the hypnotic music and the spinning of the blades on the ceiling capture our minds. We remain motionless for a time that I can not quantify, for the first time the prey of a totally spiritual fascination.
Once outside we bathe in the huge external tank, where the water according to the belief can heal us from all evil. Some boys in tourist trip ask us to take a picture together, which we gladly accept. They are dressed in jeans and Tees, but wearing their colourful turbans. At the end thank us with exaggerated courtesy, as if we were film stars.
Before leaving we visit the kitchen, maintained with a joint contribution by all Sikhs. Our guide explains that in the large dining table next to the rich is for the poor, to feed the sense of brotherhood that is critical in the worship of the Sikhs. Once outside the varied humanity spread on sidewalks reminds me that social equality is still a utopia.
Among those men one strikes me in particular, the proud face, his eyes deep and spiritual, a white beard and a stick in his hand as if to indicate a long pilgrimage. I ask him a shot, and he gave it to me. In return wants some rupees, which disappoints me a little. I move away from the multitude of those stray men whose lives I will never know anything.
We come back in the car at a time of the mausoleum of Humayun, the father of the great Akbar. We are not yet accustomed to the reality around us, so everything surprises us. We feel projected into another world, of which we have not yet understood the coordinates. We see men with dyed red hair, and women with a strip sindoor at the centre of the head, which indicates that they are married.
Arcane symbols that, in a short time, we will learn to decipher. We arrive at the entrance of the mausoleum. Once out, a snake charmer perched behind a banquet for the sale of soft drinks seems to confirm the nature of this fabled place. As soon as he sees us he opens his basket, and start playing a litany move and a cobra ensues as if by magic the harmonious spirals.
Our guide explains that it is a trick for tourists, as the serpent is teethless, and so it is totally harmless. The idea of that mutilated animal saddens me a little, but I can not help but take a picture, leaving the usual tip to the mysterious charmer.
The highway to Agra is brand new with little traffic. Only a few trucks coloured lazily run through that route. All the back bearing the inscription "horn please", as if to stress what seems to be a real national sport. We cannot suppress a slight motion of disappointment.
Imagine having to travel rough roads and teeming with life, while we are on a easy path. Our guide reassures us. Soon we will experience the real India, but would not make sense to employ six hours for a journey that now you can take in half the time. If Delhi appeared chaotic, Agra is absolutely crazy. Cows breed disparately, many with a hump that hangs limply on his back, are a constant presence.
They graze in the garbage piled copiously on street corners. Their thinness impresses me, and reminds me of some Flemish paintings depicting the triumph of death. Tuc-tuc rush past, engorge rickshaw traffic, courier packed with people trudging like old asthmatic, confusion is total. We skirt dilapidated buildings that seem to defy gravity.
We come finally to the Taj Mahal, the most famous monument of India. The Taj Mahal is not offered immediately to the sight, hidden as a woman reluctant to chase in vain, and that always eludes us hiding our eyes. Nothing is excessive or rhetorical, but everything is in line with a clear conception of life and death.
Inside it is forbidden to take photographs. A caretaker approaches flashlight to marble, enhancing its glow. The entire decoration seems like a shroud transparent crystal. It invites us to take a picture, breaking the prohibition law. We have now realized that the rules are relative in this country. The generosity of the tourists is the only way to supplement a salary that they can imagine.
Once outside we are assaulted by the vendors. We have not yet understood the mechanisms of haggling. Usually the goods, in particular in places with high tourist density, is offered at a price even ten times greater than the actual value. It is not uncommon for the rich tourist or too naive to pay as required without blinking, realizing only later suffered the scam. We buy an elephant marble inlaid at a price not too expensive but not too low, before heading to the car ahead of us to the parking lot, doing the slalom between the cows that occupy the road.
At evening we have dinner in a roadside dhaba listening to traditional music performed live at the street corner. The muffled sound of the drum, the pace of the harmonium and the voice of the singer hieratically mix with the food and flavours. A soup that looks like a curry, meatballs stuffed with something that we can not decipher, lamb in a spicy sauce, rice, which will become our favourite.
Now we give in to fatigue, falling in a rest full of images. I usually do not dream much, but a constant journey, at least on my part, will be the extreme vitality of my dream world, a pleasant and mysterious consideration the experiences during the day.
We begin the day after visiting the Red Fort in Agra. In the courtyard, the women wrapped in their sari consume a frugal meal in the traditional squatting position. Today, on the banks of the river buffaloes bathe, but then everything was alive with a lavish and fantastic life.
We emerge from the Red Fort. A cow was installed in front of a monument, becoming part of this unique cenotaph. Indeed these animals are revered and immovable, and it appears to me as living statues, emblems of a country that little by little I'm starting to understand.
We are moving towards the Mausoleum of Itmad-Ud-Dullah . I'm about to get out when I see a man pass by, he looked solemn and charismatic of a modern Christ, or Buddha, his body covered only by a cloth wrapped around his waist that still shows off his sex. I wanted to photograph him, but he is already behind me. A guru or simply a man who sells his body. Nobody ever provide an answer to this question. Another memory intended to evaporate in the depths of this fascinating country and crowds.
A few more meters and we are again immersed in chaos both near and far at the same time, equal and antithetical, partakers of the same charm. We head to the mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandra, a few kilometers from the center of Agra. We walk slowly along the park. Haggard young couples exchange effusions that otherwise the family would not have allowed.
The next day we are marching to Jaipur. A big problem is the lack of sanitation in the poorest homes. We actually see people constantly urinating in the streets, men spitting out of the windows of their cars, and we see cows grazing literally around garbages. We continue our journey, each with their own thoughts in my head. After a while someone puts into play yet again the topic of women's emancipation. Indeed in India most marriages are arranged by families. Families probe affinity character through horoscopes. When this is established it is already at a good point. Love will come later, with time.
Many young people are still attached to these traditions, especially in the villages, while in the big cities, things are changing quickly. We come to Fatehpur Sikri , the ghost city. We leave the car in a nearby car park, and then take a bus to reach the archaeological area. In the Exit there is the usual onslaught of sellers, we just had time to see a snake charmer before he encloses his creatures in lots to disappear like magic and continue the walk.
Along the way we stop for a break. In a restaurant, if you can call it a room where several blades rotate lopsidedly, with the flies that hover around and a small shop where they sell souvenirs, we ask the waiters what they cooked, and then place orders. Thus we consume more local food of good quality.
At the entrance of the village there is a Hindu temple of Harshshat Mata, built by King Chand around the ninth century AD. The sanctuary is still used by the people, as demonstrated by the belief of Shiva and Parvati’s Yoni has fallen here which is still revered as the principles of life, amidst the many incense sticks around. Beautiful bas-reliefs, sequences arcane stories and mysterious forms imprisoned in stone yet vivid in my eyes.
We walk a few tens of meters and arrive at the entrance of a temple among the oldest of Rajasthan, a place where pilgrims went to purify before entering the temple. At the entrance a man with his finger trace the tilak in the middle of our foreheads, the traditional red mark made with turmeric powder, an important symbol to indicate a source of Tantric energy.
We visit the adjacent village. Here people live as in ancient times, although some shops sell phone cards and other gadgets of modernity. A woman milks her buffalo in a narrow alleyway. When we note gives us a smile. The children of the village, warned of the presence of a group of outsiders, come out of their huts and meet us who give us purest smiles I have ever seen.
At the exit of the village craftsman shows how he produces tableware and glasses still using a traditional old technique. These people are poor but happy. I walk the route that separates us from Jaipur with this thought in my head. Traffic in the city is chaotic. Monkeys stroll lazily on the cornices, watching the slow pace of modernity with sceptical glances.
We climb a steep staircase and we find ourselves on the top of a building, from where you can see the whole city. We go down from that place of vantage, where we could enjoy a relative calm, to dive back into the swirl of cars, horns, cows and so on and so forth. Our guide offers us a rickshaw ride, which we gladly accept. The man driving is small and shows indecipherable age between forty and sixty but his strength is remarkable while leading the rickety contraption in traffic crowds.
We go out free even from this experience, despite the cars, motorbikes and cows graze there continuously. That night traditional music has been replaced by a terrible DJ who fails completely dinner, despite the excellent quality of the food in the local restaurant. We plan to go an evening stroll, but so insistent is the siege of the sellers, the rickshaw drivers, that we get back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.
In the morning we pass in front of the Palace of Winds, from which women could observe life remaining hidden inside, and head to the Amber Fort. The presence of an elephant on the road warns us that our goal is near. We arrive on site early enough, but not enough to overcome completely the tail of tourists waiting to get on the elephants.
The square is crowded with vendors. We buy some wooden idols knowing that this is not the precious sandalwood, which has preserved its fragrance for years. We negotiate for a long time, because the initial price is far higher than the actual value of the goods. We climb on the elephant who, with his waddling, will take us to the top.
The traffic is intense pachyderms. Men with red turbans drive their animals pinching rhythmically heads between their legs and encouraging them loudly. Some dare overtake that turn into anachronistic traffic jams. One of the drivers has a cell phone and is talking, which hurts a little fairy-tale atmosphere of the place. In the Hindu tradition even the doors of the houses have the figure of Ganesha above the entrance as a symbol of good wishes.
Going back to Jaipur we run into the fairy-tale Jal Mahal palace on the Mansagar lake, other manifestation of imaginative megalomania. A boy entertains us with magic tricks showing great skill as he collapses coins that then reappear as if by magic from the edge of our pants, or even by our noses and our ears. For a moment I think he has really supernatural powers, it's a magician emerged from the large time capsule for our delight.
In the afternoon we visit the observatory Jantar Mantar. Two snake charmers huddled in a corner make a sign with their hand. This time I sit next to them with legs crossed and I do take pictures with a cobra in my hands. Although mutilated, it remains an animal symbol of India.
The Mubarak Mahal strikes me as a mixture of styles, Islamic, Indian and European, which contributes to a lack of character. Some keepers in traditional dress try to extort a payment from the camera carrying tourists. Here we visit some shops downtown, especially those of the jewellers who sell precious and semiprecious stones at competitive prices. They offer the usual tea, traditional prelude to any form of transaction.
Once outside we plunge back into the life of the city. Shops sell all sorts of objects, in particular slippers and shoes with traditional point upwards that remind me of the illustrations of fairy tales I read as a child. In the evening we see a short puppet show introduced by the sound of the drum and a ritual repetitive and hypnotic song, puppets circling in the air engaging in duels and stunts, drawing light trails in the atmosphere full of moisture.
The next morning we are on the way to Jaisalmer. The number of camels, used for the transport of goods, increases substantially, which means that we are approaching the desert of Rajasthan. Desert dunes alternate with green fields, outlining a landscape with unique characters of small groups of people crossing the borders of the road in the hot sun and some resting under the trees, to regain strength for the long journey.
A cow sprouted overnight from behind a truck that runs slowly. We stop at no more than twenty centimetres from snout terrified animal. We ask what happens in case of an accident. Our guide explains if the pastor is in the neighbourhood, it would be good to compensate the loss, but it is not unusual for people who leave the scene of the accident in a hurry.
We stop for a pit stop in a small restaurant lost in the desert. We eat spicy foods, and fill our backpacks with new souvenir. Having taken another route we arrive at an isolated resort. In fact the hotel is completely empty except for us and the other pair of countrymen. They welcome us with the usual smiles, leis and a green sarbet particularly refreshing.
After travelling a few kilometres we arrive in Bikaner. The best way to see the city is to rent a tuc-tuc, what we do with enthusiasm. Suddenly a dreadful traffic jam catches us. A train is passing close to the centre, and the closure of the level crossing creates a inextricable block.
The camel festival attracts my attention. I cannot resist the temptation to take a short ride back to the animal, although the seat is totally smooth and almost no footholds to maintain balance. We move away from the place, not without having bought some necklaces of camel bone very nice and really cheap.
As we return to Delhi after completion of our trip we can only gasp at the thought that in India every thing you get is value for money unless you are conned with our entire trip being a lesson in the thought of paisa vasool that unites the citizens of this land wherever you go. And jumping into this bandwagon is Lufthansa who through their newly introduced #LufthansaPremiumEconomy class gives Indian flyers a complete value for money with more legroom and comfort for just a little more.