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Goa… Goa… Gone…

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As the sub-continent days pass, we move steadily southward, and our journey nears its end, we shed layers of clothing bit-by-bit like strippers in a sticky barroom.

The flight from Mumbai International Airport – a bright, modern facility with a nice selection of latte shops (see where my priorities lie?) – to Goa is only 2 hours with an added 3 hour delay… due south.

Mumbai was warm.

Goa is hot. And humid. And tropical. And lush. And Christian looking.

It’s jarring to see Catholic churches and cathedrals after almost 2 weeks of historic Hindu temples, palaces, and Muslim mosques.

There’s something for everyone in India.

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Goa still exhibits the cultural influence of the Portuguese, who first landed in the early 16th century as merchants and conquered it soon thereafter. The Portuguese oversaw Goa for about 450 years until it was finally re-taken by India in 1961.

Goa is India’s smallest state by area and the fourth smallest by population and is also India’s richest state with a GDP per capita two and a half times that of the country.

Slipping along the smooth 4-lane highway in an air-conditioned van from the airport to our resort near the beachfront, we enjoy sparkling beautiful hilly vistas filled with coconut palm trees, lush agricultural fields, new-to-us birds, and ocean views.

The population here is obviously less crowded and so the chaotic driving is, yeah, still chaotic, but relatively calm in comparison to crazed Delhi and Mumbai. You can almost breathe normally in this organized disorganization.

As the mango sun melts into the Arabian Sea, our first evening is spent on the enormous – accompanied by heart-thumpingly loud music and laser-trinket vendors – wide open beach where we have our first fresh seafood meal of the trip, taken under the crescent moon and stars.

Make mine Kingfish please.

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Sunset on the beach in Goa

The following night, smiling chef Pascoal, sweat beading on his brown forehead, prepares and shows us two curry dishes that both include fresh coconut.

The basis for all Indian food comes, as we’ve discovered in our three earlier cooking demonstrations in Jaipur, Udaipur and Bijapur, in the curry sauce. Hot oil, onions, ginger garlic paste, coriander, tomato, turmeric, cumin.

A few other spices come and go depending  on the locale and the tastes of the cook. But the basics remain the same.

The big difference in Goa is the pleasurable addition of coconut to the mix.

Earlier in the day we wandered through a forest-like spice plantation encountering a full kitchen cupboard of spices growing under, on top of, and over the ground.

The meandering trails we ambled in the sticky heat were lushly replete with vines of black pepper, striped orange roots that looked like ginger but were in reality turmeric, cinnamon bark trees, vanilla orchids, green cardamom, bitter-nut, and nutmeg. A wake of flavour.

Finally, the taxi to whisk us to the Goa airport for our long trek home belatedly arrives.

Quietly taking in the scenery en route allows us to daydream and reflect on the cornucopia of experience and sensation.

Reflect on the friendly faces we’ve seen everywhere; the enthusiastic children, some begging, but most merely enthusiastically aroused by an out-of-the-ordinary white face in their village.

Reflect on the many encounters in the streets and markets, the folded hands and Hindi namastes in greeting.

Reflect on the treasured Indian chai, the soothing drink found everywhere that takes on a slightly different tinge of flavour in each region, a bit more ginger here, a little more cardamom there.

Reflect on the haunting Muslim calls to prayers that ring out across towns and cities in the early morning dawn.

Reflect on the roads thronged with placid sacred cows, plodding majestic camels, motorcycles, tuk tuks, transport trucks, cars and more cars, horns in ceaseless use.

Reflect on the sight of rambunctious pink-bottomed macaque and Hanuman langur monkeys scampering along fence lines where round discuses of cow dung dry for later use as cooking fuel.

Reflecting on the inner knowledge that twice or three times a day curry dishes is just too much intense spicy flavour for our western palates.

India is a maelstrom in our minds.

Colours, textures, sounds reverberate in our heads.

The level of input and arousal is often too fast-paced, too great to assimilate in any reasonable way, like trying to breathe air under a gushing waterfall as it washes over you.

The Airbus A-320 lifts gracefully away from the Goa tarmac and the lengthy flights begin.

The emerald green forests, lush views of palm trees and sparkling ocean below are quietly soothing, like a warm milky cup of chai, fragrant steam wafting gently upwards to the clouds.

NAMASTE!

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Leaving On That Midnight Train to Mumbai…

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Our milky white-faced group within the walls of Amber Fort of Jaipur

 

It’s easy to lose your head in Mumbai (Bombay until 1995)… not to mention an arm or two.

More on this in a second.

Mumbai is a huge metropolis on the western coast of India.

20.5 million souls surrounded by ubiquitous smoky haze and skies.

Honestly, all of India that we visited in late January was grey with a pall of smoke haze.

I had naively figured that when we decamped congested Delhi, the winds would gently sweep the atmosphere of smoke, and the skies outside of the city would be small-town clear and pristine.

Nope. Blurry haze followed and hung over us from Delhi to Agra, Jaipur to Udaipur, Mumbai to Goa.

Sorry, I lost my train of thought. Must be the smoke clouding my brain.

The metro system of Mumbai is efficient and well-used.

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But the young men of Mumbai, like young men all over the world, like to impress young ladies and friends with acts of derring-do. Apparently, this daring to impress includes hanging head and body limbs outside the wide open doors of rapidly moving metro cars.

Unfortunately, metal poles and other trains pass perilously close by to the metro cars. Despite signs inside the cars cautioning riders in Hindi and English to stay completely within the cars, young men continue to pay more attention to the young ladies than those prescient warning signs.

And, unfortunately, each day 10 accidental deaths occur on the Mumbai rapid transit system.

Every day.

Efficient at transporting. Efficient at killing.

……………

The overnight train from Udaipur to Mumbai is described as a first class, air conditioned, comfortable sleeping car arrangement. Sounds pretty good, right? Can’t wait.

Walking along the late-evening platform to the stationary train, baggage rolling along behind, there is a grimy sense that we’re traipsing alongside a 1918 version of a Russian cattle cart for the poorest of the revolutionary Bolsheviks. Old… worn… dirty… bars over the windows.

FIRST CLASS SLEEPER is written on the side of the train cars.

We clambered aboard and found our assigned seats as many other passengers squeezed by with heavy suitcases and bags, to locate their seats. We jammed our luggage beneath the bench seats as best we could.

Sitting down on two brown vinyl, straight-backed benches facing each other, a few tears in the fabric, 3 passengers per side, we looked around at the milieu that promised pretty high and delivered pretty low.

When were the walls and windows of this train last washed?

As the train quietly pulled away from the station right on time, each of us assessed the apparent sleeping arrangements. The benches we sat on were the lower bunks for 2, the seat backs folded up and made a mid-section set of bunks for 2 more and finally, another bench folded down from the ceiling making a 3rd set of bunks of the remaining two.

Rudimentary bathrooms with rickety metal doors were located at the end of the car, one washroom set up Indian-style (squat toilets) and the other a Western-style seated toilet. Caked in grime. Neither facility looked remotely appealing even before they had been used by 30 or 40 souls for the following 16 hours.

Spoiled westerners that we were, we gasped, shrugged and gamely tried to make the best of an uncomfortable situation.

Maureen and I volunteered for the top bunks since one of our British travelling companions was suffering intestinal discomfort – a middle bunk made more sense for her need to have easier access to a toilet. Two very pleasant young Indian passengers returning to Mumbai took the bottom bunks.

Each passenger was given a sealed plastic bag containing two white sheets and separately, a roughly-folded beige woollen blanket with tattered edges and seams.

After sleepily awaiting a visit from the train’s officious purser to check our tickets and passports, we threw our carry-on bags up to our bunks and climbed the metal rungs at the end of the bench bunks to the upper reaches.

Very little space remained between the bunks and the ceiling so we wiggled and wormed our way forward onto the platforms that would be our resting place for the night.

Sitting up wasn’t an option. Movement of any type was barely an option. Making a comfortable bed to rest was challenging with the limited space and a carry-on bag taking up much of the room available.

But manage we did.

My legs needed to remain bent for the night so that my feet didn’t impede passersby or prevent the door to the train car opening.

After finding a small nest of reasonable comfort, no desired bathroom break could be reasonably contemplated or envisioned for the reminder of the night given the work effort to find a way out of the straightjacket and then to return again.

Morning finally arrived. But we couldn’t escape our pods until the other younger members below decided to awake. Prisoners on a shelf.

16 hours after pulling away from Udaipur, we descended from the sleep car into the humid heat of Mumbai.

Travelling is about accommodation and acceptance of the good and the less than good, and so accommodate we did.

…………..

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Mumbai as I said is a sizeable city on the west coast and, as a financial centre, consists of that confusing mixture of great wealth and sublime poverty. Beautiful modern skyscrapers co-exist with destitute families sleeping roughly on the sides of heavily trafficked roads through the city.

Our first morning journey in Mumbai was to the world’s largest outdoor laundry facility… Dhobi Ghat.

The flyover bridge of Mahalaxmi railway station gives us a bird’s eye view of the huge outdoor laundromat stretching far off into the distance.

Rows of open-air concrete wash pens are each fitted with their own flogging stone, filled with men and women handwashing the clothes.

Whole families live within the washing compound that lies next to the Mahalaxmi railway station. Long lines of sheets and men’s white shirts hang languorously in the sunshine between the wash pens.

The washers, locally known as Dhobis, work in the open to wash clothes from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals, businesses and private citizens. Like the incredible organization of Mumbai’s lunch box deliveries, no laundry is lost or misdirected.

Descending the bridge stairs, we soon find ourselves ensconced in the labyrinth of washing pens where Dhobis stand in the fibre-stained waters, washing, rinsing, thrashing the clothes and bed linens on the stones like medieval torturers, then hanging them to dry from twists of rope in the open air.

Children and small cats appear in occult doorways, darkened rooms reveal men pressing clothes and sheets with large, red hot coal-filled irons.

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……………..

Travel tells us stories of history, some ancient, some recent.

Not always nice stories.

As we arrive at the massive India Gate, an Arc de Triomphe-like edifice on the Mumbai waterfront, Chandrajeet, our local guide, reminds us of the terrorist attacks that took place here only a few years back.

In November 2008, 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant organisation based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai. The attacks, which drew widespread global condemnation, began on Wednesday, 26 November and lasted until Saturday, 29 November 2008, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308.

We wander across the clogged-with-traffic roadway to the Taj Hotel, where world leaders such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have stayed, and also where, 32 died during the terrorist attacks.

We pass through stringent security to enter the lush hotel. The inside is beyond description, lavishly rich and sumptuous, filled with enormous bouquets of flowers, floors and walls lined with marble and glass.

We glide up a wide, romantic staircase under stunning crystal chandeliers before spilling into the dignified-as-all-hell Sea Lounge for traditional Afternoon Tea.

The Sea Lounge is filled with old colonial charm and a live tuxedo-clad pianist, highlighted by a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea.

Rocky, one of our Australian travel companions and I – sampling far too many sweet treats –  try to quickly outguess each other as the pianist starts into another musical movie theme… My Fair Lady! The Sound of Music! Dr. Zhivago!

The high tea features an elaborate buffet spread of classic English delicacies as well as local Indian favourites smoothed down with a selection of fine teas. The artistry of the display is sumptuous to the eye well before it intoxicates the palate.

The complicated blend of deadly tragic events and sophisticated high-life magic settles over us in a puzzling, somewhat unsettling way.

………….

There is always a time gap in my travels where my mind assimilates and digests the monstrous volume of input. I always feel so overwhelmed and slow to absorb at the time.

Sights and sounds, scents, tastes, images and textures settle and mingle for days, weeks and months after we return.

This trip to India is no different.

Travel allows us to learn about other places, other cultures, other stories. Travel brings us understanding – not always agreement – but understanding of the people and their ways.

Travel teaches us something about ourselves, an exploration of the outerward journey but also the inner journey, sneakily revealing our strengths and weaknesses, the stuff we’re made of… the good, the bad, AND the ugly… who ME?

Namaste !

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The Children’s Smiles of Karauli… India Part 2

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Musician in the streets of Jaipur

 
Struggling with feelings of doubt or low self-esteem?

I have just the place for you. 

After settling into a picturesque, bougainvillea-festooned Maharaja’s estate in this small town of Karauli, not far from Agra, India, our group of 10… Brits, Americans, Aussies and we Canucks… wandered out the front gates of the palace, clambered aboard flatbed carts attached by long wooden poles to large camel-toned… you guessed it… camels. 

Two carts, two camels, 5 pale-white tourists per flatbed and we were off. 

The mid-afternoon sun settled over us warmly as the camels began slowly trodding forward into the narrow streets of the town. 

Sitting immediately behind the behind of the camel, its rump muscles shifting smoothly up and down like pistons, I’m a bit surprised there isn’t a stronger animal scent to this 7 foot tall creature. The stinky part must be in the spit! 

The beasts of burden ambled forwards, regal with their red-flower adorned noses held high as if they were kings of a civilization. 

Like all the Indian towns and cities we’ve seen so far, the sides of the rugged roads are heavily jammed with small shops and stalls, groups of people gathered, children running and playing, dark-skinned, wrinkled elderly adults crouched on haunches in small circles beside stalls piled high with long carrots, red onions, fresh turmeric and cabbage, apples, bananas, oranges and limes, household items like light bulbs and metal bowls and PVC pipes. 

And cows. Sacred cows. Always cows. 

 

Motorcycle or Massage Tool?

 
Young men on Honda Hero or Mahindra motorcycles or bicycles with one, two, three, maybe 4 passengers, roar up the one-lane wide streets. As always, the activity and sound is overwhelming to our ‘western’ eyes and ears but the real distraction amid this maelstrom quickly becomes… us. 

Our camel-cart parade route is lined on both sides, plus front and rear with intrigued and smiling admirers. 

Excited kids beam smiles our way and call out “hello”, “hi”, “namaste“…  

Young mothers clad in bright red, orange, and green saris holding babies close to their faces smile shyly…. adult men grin and wave in an almost embarrassed way, but can’t hold back their friendliness at these white-skinned wonders passing through their streets, through the tight corners and dusty lane ways leading up the hillside to the massive castle above their village. 

Along the route, fence tops and roofs are lined with drying cow patties, pancake circles of cow dung that, once dry are used as fuel for cooking. Some patties are layered up in artistic cylindrical piles, almost resembling braids. 

Vegetable sellers look up from their rusty weigh scales and smile as they carry out their business. Throngs of children chase behind our rustic carts as we feel each bump of the road on our tender backsides. The camel-tenders occasionally hop down from their perch and run to the front of their animals, carefully guiding them around extra tight corners or narrow stretches of laneway. 

At the finish of our enthusiastic 15-minute trek through the town we arrive at the substantial wooden castle gate. Sliding our bumped-up asses off the carts, we’re surrounded more so by eager, excited kids, jumping up and down, calling to us, shaking our hands. 

Yes, if you’re feeling down or unloved, Karauli is the one stop refresher for your blues. 

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Our journeys this week have carried us from Delhi to Agra and the Taj Mahal, then onwards to Karauli, then Jaipur, and now Bijaipur.  

It’s culture shock of a huge magnitude with the unending crowds of people, the traffic noise, the combination of Hindu religion and Muslim and Christian…. the overwhelming mass belief in the religious and nationalist traditions that govern every moment of every day of the residents. 

One of the most difficult things -for me- in visiting a country such as India is to shed the judgmental gene that constantly wants me to wonder why… how… people can live so poorly and yet believe so strongly in the bountiful grace of their Gods. 

To see countless towns and cities where groups of young men and old, sit squatting in circles, badly underutilized to my eyes, passing time. Agricultural methods seem rigidly tied to practices of 50 or 100 years ago so that more men, more women, can remain employed. 

To see a world where women are mostly relegated to subservience to their fathers and husbands. 

The western glasses I look through make me shake my head in amazement. I try to remain open-minded but it feels a strain. 

…………….  
 

Movie theatre in Jaipur

 

To attend a Bollywood movie in Jaipur, a city of about 6 million souls, our group, divided into men and women, entered the theatre through separate doorways, then immediately re-congregated on the inside. 

We slid into comfortable seats of the modern, gargantuan theatre complex, and munched popcorn through the 3 hour drama of the movie, DANGAL, a true story about a young woman’s quest to become an Olympic wrestler, told only in Hindi language but easily understood by non-speakers. 

When the young heroine of the flick wins a Commonwealth Games’ medal and the Indian national anthem plays, the entire theatre crowd of 600 or 700 stands for its playing in the middle of the movie. National pride. 

………………..

Stopping in a central city Hindu temple at prayer time in the early evening was both mesmerizing and almost frightening to the uninitiated. 

A mass of children and adult men and women stood on concrete floors, facing the altar in front, then raised their arms overhead and pushed to the front of the temple. Loud bells swung in the arms of priests, clanging at almost ear-shattering volume, over and over, then doors on the raised dais were flung open to expose religious icons and artifacts. An audible ‘oooooohhhh’ arose in the crowd. 

The congregation of souls began flowing into underground tunnels that circled behind and under the altar where magnetic forces are told to originate and emanate to energize their lives. The crowds circled under, around and back to the front of the altar where the bells still loudly clanged. 

Soon, priests begin dipping their hands into holy water and spraying it into the crowd where it is caught and rubbed over the worshipper’s head. 

The bells suddenly go silent and the people quietly leave the temple. 

Tomorrow, they will return both in the morning and the evening to re-enact this same religious ceremony. 

……………..

Finally today, Food. 

Indian spices. Indian curries. A Wonder of the World. 

A portion of this journey is dedicated to learning a bit about the cooking of various regions of central and southern India. 

A tidbit… 

In Jaipur we spent an evening in the middle-class home of a lovely young Indian woman Pooja, along with her gracious husband and son. Pooja is a petite woman in a sweater and jeans, red lipstick highlighting her pretty face. The interior of the house was clean and modern looking, not unlike a typical small western home. 

Welcomed into the front room, we were served small samples of potato (aloo) pakora and chai as Pooja explained to us about her knowledge of Indian cooking and the business of cooking for large Indian weddings. 

Next followed a short tour of her modest upstair’s kitchen, and then we were guided to the basement where a large cooking demonstration area sat. 

 

Pooja spins her cooking magic…

   
Pooja took us through her spice collection contained in a circular plastic container… 6 or 7 spices, coriander, chili, salt, cumin, turmeric, garam masala, cinnamon. Other spices such as fenugreek and cilantro and mango powder were nearby for more occasional use. 

This evening’s demo would include 4 dishes: Dal Pachrangi – lentil and ginger/garlic dal, Gatta Curry – boiled chickpea dough in a spicy yogurt-based sauce, Rice Pullow – basmati rice with cinnamon, cloves, and onion, and finally Zeera Aloo – cumin potatoes… all would be vegetarian. 

Almost like in a TV cooking show, Pooja showed us her methods of preparation. While gently stirring garlic-ginger paste into hot oil, lofting warm scent into the air, she threw in little tips for substitutions, and had us assisting in stirring sauces and rolling out chappattis to accompany the meal. 

Finally, all the dishes were hot, fragrant, and ready for us to sit and enjoy. 
After sampling each of the dishes, our lips stinging lightly from the heat of the foods, Pooja’s gentle husband served us each a small bowl of sweet semolina pudding, the perfect finish to an evening Indian meal. 

Interestingly, as the days of our Indian excursion add up… as much as I enjoy Indian cuisine… I find myself reminded that too much of ANY good thing grows tiresome. 

After 9 days of complex spiced curries and dals and aloos, I find myself dreaming of a respite of salad, or pasta, or plain meat and potatoes. Do I sound like a stereotypical North American tourist, or what? 

Next stops… Udaipur, Mumbai, and Goa where we expect the heat in the air will begin to resemble the heat in the foods.

Delhi Belly? Not Yet! Early first days in India…

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The ants pour out of their nests in brown droves and by 9 am, the smoke-hazed streets of Delhi are buzzing.

Narrow, busted pavement roads, streets of sand, dust, broken concrete, and dog shit mingle with thin, brown bodies- mostly men – rushing in every direction, some to the huge metro station at the end of the long street, others to set up street stalls selling fruit, vegetables, belts and sunglasses, plastic neon doodads, wrinkled winter jackets in big heaps on carts, and syrupy-sweet gulab jamun. 

Like most poor neighbourhoods in most poorer countries, the sounds and smells of this borough called Karol Bagh within Delhi are an assault, an assault of stimulation where small cars and rusted bicycle carts and dogs and throngs of pedestrians all compete to survive.

The fractious chaos to our western eyes is hard to imagine, but to Pappu the tuk-tuk owner/driver, it’s everyday life. 

Pappu and his tuk-tuk, a small 3-wheeled motorcycle cart that closely resembles the Coco cabs of Cuba, wait outside boutique hotels anticipating any exit by a white-skinned tourist or business person.

Pappu smiles a big, white-toothed smile and chats us up, skilfully applying his salesman skills, all honed and polished towards an end result…”always be closing” in sales parlance.

Pappu draws a promise from us – after 5 minutes of friendly but dogged pursuit – of a tuk-tuk trip to the Lotus Temple. 

 

Bahai faith’s Lotus Temple

 
The Lotus Temple turns out to be- easily- an hour’s return trip through Delhi traffic. The air temperature is cool and invigorating- perhaps 17 or 18C. 

It dawns on me that perhaps the bright mustard yellow top and green grass-coloured bottom and sides of the tuk-tuk are intended to represent a typical stop light missing the red stop portion because traffic here never truly stops but is in constant movement even when there appears to be no possible way to progress forwards in the jam of traffic.

The cost of the journey to us? 50 rupees… less than 1 dollar including sightseeing points along the route (and an unsolicited stop at his cousin’s carpet store for a 20 minute sales pitch of lovely Indian carpets served with green tea!!)… 

At the end of the fun, air-through-our-hair experience, I hand him a bonus 50 rupees with thanks and a smile. He’ll return to his station by the hotel waiting for his next “fare” with his smile and sales pitch prepared.

Tuk-tuks abound in the thousands in Delhi, for the movement of tourists and many of the 22.5 million residents. The roads of Delhi are jammed in the daytime with cars, trucks, horse and brahma drawn wagons, bicycles, motorcycles and, tuk-tuks… a maelstrom of loud horn-heavy movement where lane lines and sidewalks are generally ignored and vehicles routinely wander within anxious millimetres of each other and the walking masses.

It’s a voluminous sea of humanity beyond what we’ve experienced in other populous countries like China or Morocco, good-natured but cacaphonous. It’s a sensory overload, over-stimulating and exciting, occasionally a bit frightening in the crowded metro stations and marketplaces.

Today, a visit to a Sikh temple where each day, 25,000 people are fed free vegetarian meals prepared in huge kitchens in monster cauldrons. We sit barefoot, cross-legged on long rough carpets laid out in straight lines. Across the dimly lit hall, male volunteers carrying metal pots ladle dal and green pea soup onto our metal dishes, another volunteer follows dropping 2 warm chappatis on each plate. Quietly, hundreds of us, torn bits of chappatis in grasp, scoop the food with the right hand, the right hand only, into our mouths.

These are all early observations formed in the dawn of our visit to this historic land. The scents, the flavours, the sounds, will float us along a sensory river as we carry on, first to Agra and the Taj Mahal tomorrow, then further to Udaipur and Jaipur and Mumbai and Goa. 

Each day will send stories, new visions and impressions of the people and the wonders of its food and architecture, its art and history. 

In the days to come, there will be stories of India and perhaps, stories of the BritAusAmerican folks that journeyed here to accompany us on the road to this Best Exotic Marigold destination. 

Tuk-tuk cab on Delhi street