India: “Humbled me to tears”

It was already hot when we left our hotel in India first thing in the morning. Little did we know it would become 44 degrees… scratch that… little did we know it would become a VERY HUMID 44 degrees. Our driver Ashok, was early to greet us for the two and a half hour drive to Agra from New Delhi. Ashok is a family man, with a wife and three children.. one of which, a son, only 2 months old. It seems he works very hard and for not much money… although he didn’t complain, just smiled.
Along the stretch of highway that would take us to Agra, it was mostly desert… very, very dry empty desert.  Every once in awhile there would be a cow or a horse… then camels! Then suddenly we’d spy a few small huts on a property that looked like it was segmented as a farm. Ashok said some of the farms were growing rice, hence the occasional flooding we saw as water in such a dry place as this hot hot desert was quickly noticed. I could only wonder how these people can work so physically hard in such heat. There were manmade chimney-like brick stacks that were built on properties to be used as kilns to bake more bricks. An ingenious idea to have the “factory” right on the property that needed it, rather than trying to haul the bricks back and forth from elsewhere.
We arrived in Agra and stopped to pick up our guide Deepak. He immediately began to tell us some history of Agra, asking what we knew of the Taj Mahal so far… admitting it wasn’t much, he launched into a very well rehearsed introduction of this iconic landmark that is dedicated to the third wife of Mughal emperor, Shan Jahan, to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. She was the only wife that bore him children and he was also buried there. Visitors can see the replica tombs but the real ones are buried below the structure.agra2
Whenever we have travelled and if we see some kind of ancient monument, it never ceases to amaze us that these are so perfectly symmetrical, so painstakingly, delicately crafted. All in a time when everything would have been done by hand, from the carving to the lifting of the enormous pieces of marble… all done without the modern conveniences at hand today. We sat upon the bench overlooking the Taj Mahal where Princess Diana sat many years ago, and strangely enough, the same spot that Will & Kate, the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, sat literally two days before.
We then once again braved the insane traffic of Agra to go on to see Red Fort. This is basically a walled city. Inside there are 100 palaces, although only about 20% are available for visitors to see. The other 80% is used by military and government. The first Sultan of Delhi governed from Red Fort. There is a massive moat surrounding the building but it is empty now. It is rumoured that the third son of Shan Jahan (yes, who built the Taj Mahal for his wife) imprisoned his father within the walls of Red Fort as he was jealous that his father was leaving his legacy to his eldest brother. This son supposedly kept his father imprisoned here until his death with Shan Jahan’s only solace being that he could see the Taj Mahal from his prison window. The craftsmanship in such an ancient time (the year 1638) is staggering. There were angled inner windows that were made specifically in the “Summer Palace” to allow airflow to cool the palace in the hot summer months. I stood below one and in that 44 degree heat could still feel a cool breeze swirling around me from that oddly shaped window.
After leaving Red Fort we went to a tiny “studio” where some of the carvings and inlaid semiprecious stones are crafted for the Taj Mahal. There are pieces available for purchase such as tables, trinket boxes and the like. Apparently there are quite a number of families that do this work “from home”, using the skills that have been passed down through generations from their ancestors. Many of the craftsman are descendants of those who originally built Red Fort all those thousands of years ago.  We did try to do a little carving but as you can imagine, marble is extremely hard to work with. Most of the pieces are so tiny and there is no mortar used, only a sort of glue that comes from a secret recipe. The majority of the stones are no bigger than your fingernail.
Our guide then dropped us at a modern Indian restaurant where I had the best Butter Chicken & Naan I’ve ever eaten. We drank gallons of water to rehydrate for the long ride back… I feel terrible saying that we ate such a fine meal and were able to drink clear, cool water when we can see everywhere we look, the poorest conditions I have ever even imagined. How to describe the level of poverty in Agra…  or even in New Delhi… Of course I understand there is poverty in the world… I knew full well that we would be going to a third world country… but to see it… heartbreaking and hard to fathom.
There were dogs, horses and cattle freely roaming the crowded crazy streets and you could see their ribs. There were crumbling buildings where people have set up businesses… in one particularly precarious looking spot, I noticed a tailor… he was working away in the half open, decrepit workspace with the thousands of vehicles and people passing all day long, mere feet from him. This is in the 44 degree heat at midday. There were people sleeping on the medians in the middle of the highways… no blanket, no protection from the heat and no belongings to be seen. I saw one very young child sleeping curled up on the cement of the sidewalk… he was naked from the waist down. We were stopped at a light in Delhi when a very young boy came up to the window of the car. poverty-in-india3

He couldn’t have been more than 3 himself and he was holding a small baby of about 6 months… both were filthy… both knocked at my window and called out to me… I didn’t know what they were saying but then the older child kept saying “Mama, Mama” to me… it broke my heart. We were told not to give them anything or encourage them as many times they are actually put out there by adults to beg…sometimes as a set up to pickpocket etc. It was so difficult to just drive away as we have 5 young grandsons ourselves and I could see my husband fighting back tears like me. I thanked God again that our children and grandsons do not have to live like this. I thanked God that we are in a country where children do not go naked or hungry or have to beg. I thanked God that we each have a roof over our heads and opportunities to work and earn money. I thanked God for our good health.
I think this is something, though, that everyone should see… we often think we are hard done by but once you see this… a 12 hour work day in an air-conditioned office, knowing you’ll get to stop for lunch (even if it’s eating at your desk) and that you’ll actually have food to eat… well, it just will seem so ridiculous to have complained. I’ve seen a lot of comments on TV, social media etc where it is said that the youth of today think they are owed something… they may not say it, but they act that way. If that is true, they need one day in Agra or New Delhi, India… just one day.
You’ll see some videos we have posted already, also many photos. You may notice there are many serious faces but there are also some smiling faces… I wondered how?! how can you smile when you face this every day?? The oppressive heat, the dirt, the poverty… this is what they know. This is what they have been born into and they just DEAL. This trip summed up in one word: HUMBLING.

Facts:                                                                                                                                                          Despite significant economic progress, one quarter of the nation’s population earns less than the government-specified poverty threshold of ₹32 per day (approximately US$ 0.6).[85]

According to the 2001 census, 35.5% of Indian households used banking services, 35.1% owned a radio or transistor, 31.6% a television, 9.1% a phone, 43.7% a bicycle, 11.7% a scooter, motorcycle or a moped, and 2.5% a car, jeep or van; 34.5% of the households had none of these assets.[86] According to Department of Telecommunications of India the phone density reached 73.34% by December 2012 and as an annual growth decreased by −4.58%.[87] This tallies with the fact that a family of four with an annual income of ₹137000 (US$2,000) could afford some of these luxury items.


Gandhi memorial at Rajghat, Delhi, India

As we approached the Gandhi memorial, shoes were removed out of respect. Walking towards the central platform felt very spiritual. Hundreds of thousands pay respect every year. A square platform of black marble marks the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated following his assassination back in 30th January 1948. The only splash of colour comes from  the garlands of orange marigolds. It is surrounded by a beautiful park with trees planted by Queen Elizabeth II, US President Eisenhower, Ho Chi Minh to name but a few. At Rajghat you will see his last words “Hey Ram” inscribed in the marble.(meaning – “Oh God”).All heads of state are usually taken here to place wreaths in memory of “the Father of the Nation”. This memorial to Mahatma Gandhi is located between the main Ring Road, in Delhi, and the banks of Yamuna River, towards the southeast of Red Fort. Opening Time: 6:00 AM – 6:00PM. Entrance Charges: Free. http://www.myreturnticket.org.

Opposite the memorial is the Gandhi National Museum. A framed plaque on the wall sets out Gandhi’s philosophy: “Non-violence is the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant . . . it is then possible for a single individual to defy the might of an unjust empire”.

Memorial: Ghandi

 

Thailand

Thailand

The view from our room at the Chatrium Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand
(the famous Chao Phraya River)

 

A temple in Bangkok

 

Famous dance of the warrior monkeys in Bangkok, Thailand

 

The Big Buddha – Phuket, Thailand(a very hot & bright day!)

Chatrium Hotel Riverside – Bangkok, Thailand

  This was a lovely stay for sure, our view of the famous Chao Phraya River was spectacular. This hotel was immaculate, quiet and the service was outstanding. When we arrived it was like we were royalty, they whisked away our luggage and a lovely gentleman named Chatchawan took us on a tour of the hotel. 

  We were shown the amazing office space where we could use top of the line computers and the internet for free, enjoy cocktails and canapes each evening and then our spacious room. He was very helpful and full of suggestions for us. Breakfast was included and the buffet was unreal.. anything you could want for breakfast or you could order a la carte.  There is patio dining if you wish.

  There’s a free small ferry that would take you down the river and back to sightsee. Unfortunately we did not get to take advantage of the beautiful pool, as we were with a Rotary Convention so had not a minute of free time, but it did look lovely. 

  The hotel room was spacious with plenty of space for clothing to be stored, a proper iron and ironing board; the washroom was large and well appointed; room service was quick and delicious. I would highly recommend a stay here and do hope to go back one day. 

  Another note: the Chatrium will help you to book a reputable dinner cruise along the Chao Phraya River as we did and the temples etc were a lit up beautifully. They serve a buffet dinner, ours was excellent, and there is entertainment. Well worth it, especially as we had taken video and to know you’ve been on this famous working waterway is priceless.

The Return Ticket gives the Chatrium Hotel Riverside, Bangkok: five tickets out of five.

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha(Wat Phra Kaeo)
 
  This is Thailand’s most valued temple and it’s located inside the grounds of the Grand Palace. This is where the magnificent Emerald Buddha is found that dates back to the 14th century.
  It was incredibly hot, so be sure to take plenty of water and have a hat if not an umbrella to shade yourself. I would also suggest taking an extra memory card because you will take so many pictures! You cannot take pictures of the actual Emerald Buddha(cameras are not allowed) but you may of everything else, including the Palace, the guards, the surrounding temples, etc.
  The history is amazing – you should go with a guide; we did and he explained so much more than we could have learned on our own. His name was Tao and he worked for Tourism Thailand.
  Please remember to dress appropriately(no shorts or skirts where ankles can be seen, and no uncovered shoulders) or you will absolutely NOT be allowed to enter.
  The Return Ticket gives the Wat Phra Kaeo: five tickets out of five 
 
Chao Phraya River
 
  This scenic river that flows through the heart of Bangkok, has convenient boat transportation and sightseeing cruises since many of the major city attractions are easiest to get to this way rather than by travelling the crazy busy streets.
  We went on a dinner cruise and it was beautiful. I would suggest asking your concierge at your hotel for the name of a reputable company. Be sure to take a video camera, it’s quite dark for regular photographs and you will want something captured of your evening. The palaces and temples are completely lit up at night and are amazing.
  There are free shuttle services daily from the hotels on cute little ferries that stay cool with a breeze as you go. The Chao Phraya is still a working waterway and you can see many types of barges carrying good to and fro.
The Return Ticket gives the Chao Phraya River: four tickets of out five
Siam Naramit
 
  Siam Naramit is located in the centre of Bangkok. It is a state of the art theatre that is open every day and presents one of the world’s largest stage productions. There are three restaurants and an authentic traditional Thai village where visitors can stroll through and get a taste of Thai life from years ago. The village was amazing, primitive, but unbelievable.
  This show was fantastic! I won’t go into detail as it would give away the stunning details and you must see it yourself to believe it! You are able to take photographs outside of the theatre and in the village but you must check your camera in the coat check pre-show. It’s possible to buy a CD of the show afterwards.
The Return Ticket gives Siam Naramit: five tickets out of five
 
Pacific Club Resort, Karon, Phuket
 
  I cannot say enough about this resort! The staff are unbelievable to start with… we arrived straight from the airport & while checking in, we were brought fresh squeezed juice. It was so refreshing because it was so hot compared to what we are used to. Gay, at the front reception was absolutely lovely & couldn’t have been more helpful. She recommended trips/tours for us & gave suggestions of what we could do while there.
  The restaurant has an excellent breakfast buffet, we also ate dinner there on two occasions and it was delicious as well. Room service was excellent. You can rent mopeds right at the hotel which was a great idea because the resort is on a fairly steep hill. The herbal sauna was lovely, along with the cooling jacuzzi outside of it. The rooftop pool was absolutely amazing, you could see for miles(including the Big Buddha!), and there were many areas to sunbathe, sit and eat or read under an umbrella.
  The rooms themselves were excellent with large comfortable beds, lots of extra towels, a fridge for extra water, and a little balcony with a drying rack and table and chairs to sit at. There was plenty of clothes storage, if you’re staying for any length of time.
  The resort is not far from the beautiful beach where the water is unreal and the waves are fun to play in! Take a moped, backpack, water and explore the little markets that are everywhere. We grabbed some drinks and snacks to have in our room as well for when we didn’t feel like a meal. The resort is immaculate and the staff in the dining room are very efficient; we really liked a gentleman named Ead.
  A little tip: we were on the fourth floor as quite a few tripadvisor reviews suggested it and it was perfect!
The Return Ticket gives the Pacific Club Resort, Karon, Phuket: four tickets out of five
  The Mantra Day Spa 
 
  The Mantra Day Spa is the Pacific Club Resort’s own spa. Lili was my masseuse and she was unreal. I have never had such a thorough massage(the cellulite one), green tea wrap, or pedicure. The prices were that, you can have nearly every service there is and still find it incredibly reasonable! My husband had a neck and scalp massage and also enjoyed it.
  Be prepared when you have the full body massage that you will have a very intense massage in every muscle but it is so so worth the little bit of discomfort here and there. Lili herself must have been exhausted after because she gave it her all!
The Return Ticket gives the Mantra Day Spa: four tickets out of five