Yatra – My India Diary Part 2

By Shyama Parui

Is it the people who make a place special or the place that makes people distinctive? How do habitats, climatic influences, practices, and preferences accumulate and evolve into a culture? It is probably safe to say that there is no clear answer. In my personal journey as an immigrant and as a traveler, I can attest to the statement that it is people who make a location unique. Close your eyes for a second and imagine yourself alone in a completely foreign country. What do you miss the most? I am willing to wager that images of your loved ones will emerge. Similarly, if you flip through your vacation albums, digital or the old- fashioned ones, the fondest memories are likely to be tied to human interactions. Our beach loving family has visited many island destinations yet, Jamaica has been a favorite because of the warmth and hospitality of the people. Everyone we had interacted with beamed with friendly enthusiasm, as if powered by the tropical sun.

During our five weeks in India, I stayed at four different hotels in various parts of the country. Although, the nightly room rates at these hotels were comparable, their focus was far from common. One was geared towards attracting weekenders from Mumbai looking to enjoy some rain and soothe their nerves. The resort did not exude luxury but offered panoramic views of the hills and the lush greenery, which was at its peak during the monsoon. Our hotel in Kolkata mostly appealed to business travelers looking for a convenient location. The plush and efficient appearance did not make up for their indifference toward a customer's concerns about cigarette odor in a non-smoking room. Neither of these places, provided a personal touch in their services.

All that changed when we reached the Land of Kings – Rajasthan. We were treated like royalty, and close attention was paid to our needs as if we were their personal guests. With the exception of an overzealous server, it didn't appear like the staff was merely trying to earn gratuity or rave reviews. The company's culture had preserved the region's regal cordiality. Did I mention that the price was comparable to the previous hotels? In North America, service and hospitality will be miniscule, if at all, when you choose to stay in some run of the mill chain hotel charging the same dollar value. I fully appreciate the complexity in pricing and location that determine a hotel's offerings, understandably so, but in general our experience as a guest was influenced by our interaction with the hosts.

Geographic features have their strengths of course. The allure of Jaisalmer lies in the sand dunes and the glory of Udaipur comes from the Aravalli Hills and the lakes which hold its floating palaces. Tourists rejected The Taj Lake Palace, which is ostensibly the world's most romantic hotel when the merciless drought of 2009 dried up Lake Pichola. According to local sources, water was pumped into a narrow channel in an effort to lure visitors back.

Since the kids were visiting India after a four-year gap, I fully expected them to view things differently. They were quick to point out the environmentally conscious efforts of banning single use plastic bags and the clean and beautified streets of tourist friendly Jaipur. Discovering Rajasthan with the children and seeing some of the legendary landmarks of that amazing state through their eyes, was a remarkable experience. The vibrant nature of textiles, dances, and art brightened our spirits. Our parental objective of educating them about India's rich history and natural beauty, was fulfilled too. I would gloat, but their comments about the roads of Mumbai were not positive. No surprise there. We witnessed dangerous driving being taken to a whole new level, something you might see in a virtual reality game, but not in real life. Yet, after returning home they mostly talk about family - playing with the younger children, and the sweet treats they shared with cousins. On a side note, feasting on pancakes, waffles, and churros seems to be the latest rage in Mumbai.

For me the added bonus of the trip was attending my nephew's wedding and along with reconnecting with relatives, it was a perfect opportunity to dress to the nines. Not to mention gastronomical delights, such as freshly prepared jalebis with rabri (traditional dessert) and pani-puris (popular street food) that are not self-service. Since nothing can be perfect, we had to deal with illness in the midst of the wedding festivities but we were grateful to have a friendly, neighborhood doctor available. I was both impressed and appreciative of the fact that she was willing to see patients in her living room, at no cost. Why? That's just her way of being a good neighbor.

And good neighbors make you love your home. When we first bought our house, it was because we fell in love with the structure. The kitchen, the windows that filled the rooms with natural light, backed by a yard that was not too intimidating to maintain. A city girl like me had no desire to live in the woods. Over the years, we have embellished it with our memories and milestones, decorated it with painstaking detail, and supervised renovations to make it our home. We haven't been motivated to move not only because of the convenience of the location, but due to the people in our community. This was confirmed recently, although I wish the circumstances were different. Our summer of enjoyable moments was also scarred by a series of unfortunate events.

A car accident, unexplained ticket cancellations, and an incident that forced my husband to cut short the trip and return home. Unharmed but overwhelmed, we continue to fear that a streak of bad luck is following us waiting to ruin our next plan. Nevertheless, friends and neighbors who promptly lent a helping hand allowed us to get through these difficulties. They called to check in on us, offered moral support, dealt with things while we were en route, went out of their way to make meals, and do airport pick-ups. Each one of them took the time out of their busy schedules to show care and concern without expecting anything in return. Now, we know that it was the right decision to stay.

The stars were not aligned for our yatra this time, but that doesn't mean we have renounced travel for good. On the contrary, it has strengthened our family and I predict obsessive attention to every detail, and being ready for worst- case scenarios. “Plan, Prepare and Insure" will be our new mantra. We might even seek consultation from a palmist or astrologer. More importantly, we will remember to be a genuine friend and a dependable neighbor to others.

All of which applied to Hurricane Florence, which hit the Carolinas in September.


Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com