At the New York Airport on our way to New Delhi, I have lots of time to recollect my thoughts.
In the past week while I was busy daydreaming about the craggy peaks of the Himalayas and my heartfelt wishes of meeting the deathless master Babaji, Jules was busy actually making a real trip around India happen.
He was looking at wonderful places to stay, good places to eat, connecting flights and other means of transportation and charming activities like visiting rural tribes and listening to local musicians that might be playing in the areas we plan to visit.
I asked him not to make too many prior arrangements or reservations, but his research will indeed save us lots of time surfing for information on the Internet, while we are in India.
It is best if he does the research and finds places to stay, while he has lots of time.
Our plans to visit Srinagar Kashmir are not going to happen this time.
We have been trying to see Kashmir for the past six years, but there has not really been a good time to visit the area in the past few years.
The news reports from the area are discussing demonstrations in the streets of Srinagar, which we were planning to visit, with casualties and injuries occurring daily.
We got an email from the Taj hotel that we had booked in Srinagar telling us that because of the political situation there, the city is under curfew every evening.
All of the tourist attractions in the city are closed and if we do come to stay in the hotel, we will not be able to go anywhere.
Even their SPA is closed.
We do not want to fly into a war zone, nor do we want to be prisoners in a hotel. Reluctantly, we called the airline and changed our flights and canceled our hotel reservation.
We will now fly from Delhi directly to Leh, Ladakh, instead of connecting in Srinagar, Kashmir.
In researching places to stay, Jules is playing it safe by looking at the very best hotels and heritage houses, restored palaces and charming Haveli mansions.
We do like to support local businesses and promote small grassroots establishments, but one also has to use common sense, by filtering through places that are not such a good value or that do not try hard enough to give guests a wonderful experience.
In past trips to India, we decided not to rely only on the top luxury brands like the Oberoi or the Taj, but to book charming Air BnB’s, small boutique hotels and local guesthouses.
Sometimes we found real gems and stayed in wonderful country houses, farmhouses, elegant cottages and family run small hotels. but we also have had some mishaps.
We booked a charming guesthouse in an old and beautiful city in Rajasthan.
The guesthouse was rated number one on TripAdvisor, ranking way above all the more luxurious places.
We did not even try to price the Oberoi which was in a restored palace, since we LOVED what people had to say about this guesthouse.
People raved about the uniquely decorated guest rooms, each with different colors, furnishings and accessories.
They raved about the big beds, the AC, the window seats, the rooftop restaurant serving superb vegetarian cuisine, the friendly owner who helps you plan walks around the old city and about his son, who gives free rides on the back of his scooter, into the walled area of the old city.
People raved about the mother, who was giving cooking classes and demonstrating how to prepare the local vegetarian cuisine, and all this for just $75 a night.
We were totally sold, and we booked one of the best rooms they had available, for a few nights.
Our driver was not happy when we gave him the address.
In India, the hotels often provide basic free accommodation and free food for the drivers who drive people around the country.
This tiny guesthouse, which catered mostly to backpackers, had no provision for drivers.
This wasn’t a big deal, since our vehicle rental included a fee for the driver’s accommodation and food, but the driver liked to keep that money, which he could do, when his accommodation and food were provided for free.
When we checked in, the room we were showed was dark and stifling hot.
“Oh, madam, this is because the AC is not on high, I will turn it up and soon it will be very, very cold,” said Govinda, the employee who checked us into the guesthouse.
“Great, yes, please turn up the AC, meanwhile we will take showers and change for dinner since we spent a long hot day in the car to get here,” I said.
“No…. Madam, this will not be possible….” said Govinda, and as he saw our crestfallen looks, he quickly added:
“Hot water is only provided between ten pm and eleven.
“That is when everyone can take hot showers.
If you want cold shower, no problem, Madam, you take one now.”
As you might imagine, all the guests in the place showered at the same time between ten and eleven at night, and the water pressure was like a trickle and barely lukewarm.
Electricity was shut off at midnight and came back on at six in the morning.
So much for sleeping with a cool AC….
The rooftop restaurant was nice, with ample cushions spread over concrete seats, but the owner was short tempered and uninterested in giving any travel advice.
His unmarried son ONLY gave rides to scantily clad young backpacker girls.
The mother did NOT give cooking lessons as promised, and there were no pamphlets in our room suggesting any cooking demonstrations.
The mother was less interested in catering to clueless foreigners, and much more interested in playing the part of the rich, successful matron.
I did not mind the lack of cooking classes, because the food was not very good, heavy-handed and very oily.
The guesthouse was isolated with not many places to eat in the area, so we made do and ate our dinner there only once.
On other days, we made sure to stay out all day and eat out.
We gave our driver a four day paid vacation and walked everywhere.
During the days we roamed the streets and had a great time, but in the evenings, we resented coming back to the hot, overhyped guesthouse, number one on TripAdvisor, when the glistening lights of the Oberoi Palace with white gloved butlers serving pomegranate Kulfi (handmade ice cream), were glowing across the distant city, beckoning us to its comforts and luxury….
This time, Jules was not even looking at those overhyped promises.
If there IS an Oberoi or a (real) Taj, we are there, luxuriating between its walls.
We will forgo the promises of “authentic” cooking classes and free scooter rides, for the real promise of clean beds, clean water, AC and hot showers.
If there are no trusted hotels, we will choose the best local guesthouses that we can find.
While Jules did the research, I was busy in the studio, cherishing my final days of painting until November, when we get to my studio in New Zealand.
I feel excited about the trip, but I am also aware that I feel a bit sad not to have access to a studio for months.
I have spent long days in the studio, listening to lectures while I paint.
In the past few weeks, I have been able to finish two paintings.
We prepared our mountain house for our departure.
It will be five months, and deep into ski season before we will be home in Colorado again.
The mountains are changing their colors and the oak trees along our creek are shedding their leaves.
No matter how excited I am for our upcoming adventure, I have to say that it is hard to say goodbye to our isolated mountain retreat where it is so quiet and full of birds, especially the many hummingbirds who love the feeders Jules has set out for them, where everything is clean and beautiful, and where I hardly see any people all week long.
India is a country which is roughly twice the size of California, but has a population of 1.25 Billion people….. So I expect that it will be an adjustment to get used to so many people around…
The Rocky Mountains are still green with only a little change of foliage color indicating that the evenings and nights are getting colder.
But…an exciting adventure awaits us, and I can hardly wait.