Once I took a train across a portion of India. The railroad car consisted of a plain wooden box with two platforms attached to the forward and backward wall, with a window between the two. The platforms were hinged and could be folded against the wall or pulled down for seats. With my head and shoulders on one platform and feet on the other across from me, I draped myself beneath the window. My two traveling companions didn’t seem to care that I had commandeered the window. I guess my position didn’t look too comfortable to them. But I loved that train ride, for I had a panoramic view of the Indian countryside played out like a technicolor movie.
At one stop, I watched little boys playing in the railroad’s water supply that was open and spraying like a fire hydrant. On the deck beside the depot, I watched a couple change their toddler’s diaper and use water from a thermos to wash his fanny. Toilet paper is scarce to non-existent in India. Instead, water faucets are installed beside most toilets, even ones that are a simple hole in the ground. You can bet most of our suitcases were filled with toilet paper, as we were forewarned.
As the train rolled along, I occasionally saw a dog with a stained ring around his belly and hind legs. In fact, every dog I saw in that area had the same stained rump. Curious. And then I saw the cause. In the middle of a ginormous mud puddle—more like a shallow pond, sat a dog.
Two friends and I went to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. Hey, we were in India. It was a must, right? I was so naïve. I didn’t know it was a mausoleum. In the 1600s, the emperor built the Taj Mahal for his favorite wife, to the tune of, in those days, 32 million dollars. (In 2020, that would be one billion.) The love story between the emperor and his wife is heart rendering. She was so beautiful that he instantly fell in love with her, and although she was not his only wife, she was the “Jewell of the Palace.” When she died of complications in giving birth to her 14th child, he was so heartbroken he grieved for two years. And then he watched over the building of her mausoleum for another 10.
Upon walking through an archway, we were struck by a shimmering image of the Taj Mahal so brilliant that it appeared to be vibrating. Not only was it made of white marble, but semi-precious stones were precisely inlaid into the marble. The effect was not only exquisite, but gave the structure an ethereal quality. The two towers beside the building are structurally engineered to tilt. Upon viewing the building from a distance, the towers looked straight.
We were required to wear footies over our shoes when we entered the building, which was surprisingly small, a simple marble room with a tomb in the center. And beneath it, another room with another tomb exactly beneath the first. I learned later on the emperor was also buried there. The reflecting pool in front of the Taj Mahal contained no water. They told us it was only filled for special occasions, and since it was about 120 degrees that day, we understood why it was empty. I am not exaggerating about the temperature. However, we weren’t unduly uncomfortable and only learned the following day that we had endured 120 degrees Fahrenheit. So, you can understand why the dogs cooled their heels.
Six of us, led by a couple who regularly made the trek, journeyed to India to see an Indian guru named Sai Baba. We had viewed a film where he supposedly created verbudi, a sacred ash, from his hands. So, it was a bit troubling when we were there to see trinkets sold outside the ashram that looked exactly like the ones he supposedly explicitly created for a devotee in his audience.
What did I learn? That no person is my master.
I once wrote about a phenomenon I witnessed in India and again in Hawaii. That was the grapevine. This surprised me that people just appeared and offered information when you needed it. One morning as the six of us were having breakfast in the courtyard of the house where we were staying, someone yelled over the board fence—we couldn’t see them, and they couldn’t see us—but the voice told us that Sai Baba had moved from the little town where we were staying to his ashram in Puttaparthi. So, what did we do? We threw our simple mattresses, that we had purchased, onto the roof of a taxi, climbed aboard, and traveled to Puttaparthi. We did have one meal there, but basically, because we were afraid to drink the water and eat the food, instead, we ate toasted cashews sprinkled with cayenne pepper and drank lime soda from a bottle. (And we left the mattresses for the next visitors.)
From the ashram, Florencia, Sherri, and I went to the Taj Mahal. After Sherri got homesick and went home, Florencia and I traveled a bit more—like Copenhagen, “A wonderful gem of a town,” where it was so cold we donned wool sweaters. Florencia had been married to a military sailor who said you could only drink alcohol when the sun was under the yard arm, so at the end of the day, before we had our customary glass of white wine, one of us would ask the other if the sun was under the yardarm. Florencia would say, “Somewhere in the world, it is.” And that would give us permission. Florencia was a perfect traveling companion. She is gone now, but maybe where she is they serve white wine and don’t care where the yardarm is.
What sent me off on this trail? My honey and I watched a documentary the other night titled “I am Salt,” about an extended family that spends 8 mounts every year on a desolate mudflat in India, farming salt. Fascinating. I did not know salt required such hard work. Everybody worked on sitting up camp, digging the pump and hoses out of the mud where they had buried them last year, made ponds, and ran a pump constantly to bring the saltwater buried in the ground to the surface to fill ponds. As the water evaporated, leaving behind the purest white salt, they had to tend their crop, building berms to hold the water, ditches to move it, tamping down the soil, adding grass, so the crystallizing salt had something to grab hold of. It was laborious work. As I watched the momma’s making flatbread, I wondered what they ate besides bread, and I thought of the babies in India. The babies didn’t fuss or squirm as one would expect of an infant. I had observed that fact until our ride back from the Taj Mahal in a First-Class railroad car. Onboard, a young couple had a young child, less than a year old. They looked affluent, immaculately dressed, and the baby acted as one might expect of an infant that age, jumping on their lap, active, squirming, taking in its surroundings.
I concluded that nutrition had a hand in this.
Why did I call this "Moon Over India?" Well, our travel agent said that a visit to the Taj Mahal during a full moon was exquisite, and that we would be there during a full moon. We don't know what it looked like that night for we were wiped out from the day, and languished in a hotel room that night.
That vibrating image was the picture I have carried away. It was enough.
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Two in a series, however, each stands alone.