In July of 2012 I was invited to visit a new Indian university to assist the faculty to establish a GIS Master’s Degree program modeled after a long and well recognized program at the University of Redlands. The trip began with a flight from LA to Zurich on Swiss International Airlines. My seat in Business Class afforded me a great culinary experience, beginning with a fantastic Nicoise salad of peppered Yellow Fin Tuna, followed by the main course of Chicken Dijon, accompanied by a unique shallot bread pudding. The dessert of vanilla mousse with Bourbon butter peaches, topped with crumbled almond biscotti finished off the evening in grand fashion. The next day, we landed in Zurich under cloudy skies and light rain showers – a dramatic contrast to the 100+ degree weather I had left in southern California! Since my onward flight to New Delhi departed two hours before, Swiss International had arranged for a hotel room at the “Welcome Inn Hotel” in the small town of Kloten, just 10 minutes from the airport. That evening I went downstairs to the “Restaurant – Bar Kanzlei” for a cold beer – a local brew called “Halden Gut”. As I looked around, I noticed a lot of people ordering “Cordon Bleu” for dinner, so I decided to do the same. It turned out to be a fabulous breaded pork schnitzel stuffed with parma ham and gruyere cheese, served with French fries and a delicious ratatouille. During the night there were several periods of heavy rain, and I awoke to a very wet world. After breakfast I grabbed my camera and hiked up a footpath behind the hotel, through the forest to the top of a hill overlooking the airport. I had entered a large nature reserve where there were beautiful views of the Swiss countryside as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.
On my way back to Kloten I came upon several old farmyards and the old village church with a small cemetery surrounding it. The path followed a small stream that flowed through the town.
Back at the hotel, I took the shuttle bus to the airport to check in for my flight to New Delhi. Once again the culinary experience in Business Class was superb – a delicious roasted Veal chop in wild mushroom cream sauce, accompanied by an amazing “potato roti”, a traditional Swiss dish that resembled a potato casserole. After dinner, I settled into my seat with a glass of Swiss wine to watch the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, a movie that was filmed in Jaipur, India and a quintessential look at Indian philosophy and culture. I loved the film, which was so positive and uplifting. My favorite line in the film was “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, then it is not the end”. It was a perfect introduction to arrival in India! Upon landing in New Delhi, I was astonished to find a brand new International Terminal, very spacious and beautifully decorated with all forms of Indian art and antiques. Despite the arrival of three 747’s at the same time, I cleared immigration and customs in a record time of 20 minutes, whereas on all of my earlier trips to India it had taken no less than two hours! A driver from the Indian International Centre (IIC) was waiting outside to take me to the hotel, which was part of a large research campus on the edge of the city. Finally, at 2am I checked into my room and called it a night. The air was still very warm and quite humid, even in the middle of the night.
Four hours later I awoke and discovered that IIC was surrounded by a lush tropical nature preserve called “Lodhi Gardens” – really a lovely, peaceful setting far removed from the noise of the chaotic traffic for which New Delhi is well known. The gardens contain the tombs of many Sayyid and Lodhi rulers of the 15th century Moghal Empire, the most famous being the tomb of Mohammed Shah. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lodi_Gardens
After breakfast, my colleagues from the local Esri office picked me up for the drive to the new NIIT University (NU) in the small town of Neemrana, about 60 miles south in the state of Rajasthan. The route followed the “National Highway” linking New Delhi with Jaipur, the capitol of Rajasthan. The journey was sometimes fast on the new 4 lane road, and at other times frustratingly slow, bordering upon not moving at all as the 4 lanes suddenly became a very narrow 2 lane road through every little town and village along the way! One must keep in mind that “lanes” on roads in India, although clearly marked, have little effect on how the traffic moves. Sometimes we found the southbound traffic using 3 lanes and then suddenly, without any warning, it seemed to reverse and we found ourselves driving in 1 lane! On top of that, our driver constantly darted around and amongst heavy trucks spewing huge clouds of thick black diesel smoke. Luckily for us the car was well air conditioned, but following just inches behind a large truck going 60 mph was a bit unnerving, to say the least. However, my Indian colleagues appeared unconcerned – just a “normal” drive in India. There were several times when we encountered massive traffic jams and trucks broken down in the middle of the road. Sometimes, along the roadside were signs reading “Accident Prone Zone – Go Slow”. In my view the entire highway qualified as an accident prone zone! As we neared Neemrana, we began seeing a lot of people dressed in yellow and orange, carrying large containers of water. I was told that these people were devout Hindu pilgrims carrying sacred water from the Ganges River, some of whom had walked hundreds of kilometers.
At last we arrived in Neemrana and I was taken to the new “Cambay Sapphire Hotel” in the heart of the old village – needless to say, although it was a very nice, modern hotel, it looked uncomfortably out of place among the ramshackle buildings surrounding it. My room was very nice, but the hotel was not quite finished. The bar had not received a permit yet, so it was closed, and it wasn’t possible to make international phone calls, let alone access the internet. However, my Indian hosts made sure to buy a large stock of beer for the fridge in my room. I soon found out that I was among only a dozen guests in the 500 room hotel, the others being technicians from Japan working on the development of a large manufacturing facility on the edge of the village. That evening I went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner and enjoyed a fantastic meal of chicken tikka masala, steamed rice, and fresh baked naan. Meanwhile, my Japanese neighbors ordered from the Japanese menu – they don’t know what they missed! Outside the evening air remained very humid and hot (95 degrees), but the locals kept saying how cool and comfortable it was now after the recent monsoon rains! After dinner, I turned on the TV in my room and found only 3 channels in English, out of more than 60, and surprisingly, one of the English language channels was NHK from Japan.
The next day was spent meeting with the NU faculty and staff to discuss the establishment of their new GIS Master’s Degree program. The discussion continued over lunch in the student cafeteria where several different vegetarian dishes were available, all of which were delicious. As I proceeded through the queue with my metal tray, I was reminded of my days in the Army and the mess hall. At the end of the day, I returned to my hotel room for a cold Kingfisher beer before enjoying another fantastic dinner in the restaurant downstairs. Then it was time to watch the world news on the NHK channel. I was up early the next morning to meet my university host for a trip to Jaipur, the ancient capital of Rajasthan. It’s often known as the “Pink City” for all its brightly colored buildings. Once again we were southbound on the National Highway with all its insane traffic. (hundreds of heavy trucks, cars in various states of disrepair, motorcycles, bicycles, tractors, camel carts, sacred cows, elephants, and people dashing in and out of the whole mess) Our driver was constantly weaving in and out among the trucks, inches from their bumper. Even sitting in the back seat was scary when I could see nothing in front but a massive steel bumper, made more frightening at 60 mph! But as I looked around it seemed like this was the norm, and throughout the 3 hour journey I saw only one minor accident. The most terrifying part of the trip came when traffic suddenly began travelling the wrong way straight toward us! Virtually all the heavy trucks were totally overloaded and had various signs painted on the rear, such as “Blow Horn Please” (and there was plenty of that going on), “Keep Distance” (which appeared to be completely ignored by everyone), “Use Dipper at Night” (British English for the headlight dimmer switch), and the most common sign of all “Great India”. Besides the very colorful trucks with their signs, I noticed several roadside signs in the numerous construction zones that read “Inconveniency Regretted”. (unfortunately they didn’t make the travel experience feel any better) As we passed through the small towns along the way, I made note of some of the business signs, like “The Meet Place” (a local bar) and “Lucky Family Restaurant”. At last we reached Jaipur and were rewarded with some amazing historic sites for which the city is famous. Among the most famous is the “Amer Fort”, also known as the “Red Fort”, having been built of local red sandstone, located on a high hill just outside the city. It’s a formidable structure built in 1592 by Raja Man Singh that blends both Hindu and Rajput styles of architecture in a massive four story structure. A significant architectural feature are the many beautiful courtyards and lush gardens incorporated seamlessly into every level, flowing naturally from one to the other like a river.
Also, a high stone wall, resembling the Great Wall of China, surrounded the enormous complex. My Indian host and I spent several hours walking around the gigantic palace, visiting the royal residences, libraries, gardens, and galleries, but we hardly saw even a quarter of it.
It’s definitely worth another visit someday. Meanwhile, thousands of families, both Hindu and Muslim, also wandered among the hundreds of rooms and gardens. Visiting Amer Fort remains the highlight of my time in Jaipur. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amer_Fort
From the Red Fort we drove into the center of the city to Albert Hall Museum, the oldest museum in the state of Rajasthan. It was built in 1876 and named in honor of Albert Edward, who later became King Edward VII. The museum had a rich collection of paintings, sculpture, carpets, ivory, stone and metal art, as well as stunning works of crystal. The large building was an elaborate structure of native stone and marble, with several towers and courtyards. It was situated in the center of a large park just outside the old city wall.
As we approached the museum I became aware of thousands of pigeons roosting on the roof of the building, but once inside the museum resembled a lavish palace, and the art work on display was beautiful, historical, and very impressive. During our visit, we encountered many families and groups of school children who were also enjoying the gorgeous displays, as well as the history of the museum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Hall_Museum
Late in the afternoon we paid a visit to “Hawa Mahal”, one of the most distinctive buildings in Jaipur, and known in English as the “Palace of Winds”. The entire front (façade) of the 5 story structure was carved from local red and pink sandstone and designed to be a “screen wall” to permit the women of the royal household to observe street festivals and everyday life while remaining unseen from the outside. The palace was built in 1799 by the Maharaja of Rajasthan in a style to resemble the crown of the great Hindu god Krishna. There were 953 small windows decorated with intricate lattice work, which allowed air to move freely through the entire structure, hence the origin of the name “Palace of the Winds”. It’s also believed that it gave rise to the name “The Pink City”, being forever associated with Jaipur.
A major restoration project was undertaken in 2006, and once again it gained the stature and heritage of its unique past! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawa_Mahal
On our return trip to Neemrana, we stopped at “Maharaja’s Food Restaurant” for a delicious spicy dinner of traditional Rajasthani dishes. Later, near a small village we came upon a large troop of monkeys alongside the road, surrounding a banana stand. So our driver stopped to buy some bananas to feed the monkeys. It was a very clever way to “market” the bananas!
The next day I met with students during lunch in the cafeteria, while a classic “Bollywood” movie played on the small TV in one corner of the room. Then after some further discussion of the proposed Master’s Degree program with the department faculty, I went back to the hotel where we were supposed to have dinner with the university President. But suddenly the plan was changed to meet at “Nurala’s Restaurant” in the Days Hotel (it looked exactly like a Days Inn in the US) several kilometers from Neemrana, since the Cambay Sapphire Hotel still did not have a license to sell alcohol. So once again we joined the heavy truck traffic on the National Highway headed north toward New Delhi, and soon we encountered a massive traffic jam at the toll booth. Eventually we reached the Days Hotel, after making a difficult and dangerous U-turn in the middle of the busy highway! The dinner was a fabulous selection of traditional food from Rajasthan, with whiskey and beer flowing freely all evening. When I finally got back to my hotel room, I watched part of a movie on TV titled “The Alamo”. It looked to be a fairly decent production, but, all of the English dialogue was accompanied by English subtitles, while the Spanish dialogue had no subtitles! (it’s something that still confounds me, especially having watched it in India) The following day I met with the university President to present a summary of my visit and discussions with the faculty and staff. Before leaving for the return trip to New Delhi, I was given a tour of the campus by the facility manager, a retired Commodore in the Indian Air Force. He had a deep passion for the natural environment surrounding the campus. Afterwards I was presented with a gift from the President, and the Commodore insisted that I help plant a tree, a university tradition. As I scooped soil around the little tree, I was asked to give it a name, so I named it “Magellan” in honor of my Siamese cat of the same name. But I had to explain to the Commodore that it was also the name of the first person to circumnavigate the world!
Luckily for us the truck traffic on the National Highway was fairly light, so we made good time on our journey back to New Delhi, despite the occasional herds of goats, sheep, and cattle crossing the busy 6 lane highway, bringing all traffic to a halt! (I think only in India is this taken as a natural and accepted part of driving) As we approached the outskirts of the city we passed an overcrowded bus (the only kind of bus in India), and as I looked up I saw a monkey happily riding on top! Soon afterwards we made a stop for lunch at a roadside McDonalds. (after executing another scary U-turn across the busy 6 lane highway) The menu, as well as almost everything about the place, was just as you would find at home, with the exception that all the hamburger choices were made with chicken. (virtually no one in India would eat beef or pork) I ordered a “McSpicy Chicken Burger” with fries, and it was superb! Once we arrived in New Delhi, I met with the CEO of NIIT to brief him on my time at the university, which he had established two years earlier. We had a great conversation about GIS technology, and as I was leaving he gave me one of his favorite books, which he personally signed for me. Not only was he one of the wealthiest and most influential men in India, he was very bright, articulate, and humble, having risen from a poor, rural background. It was a real pleasure talking with him. Then it was time for my return to the Indian International Centre to check in for the next two nights before my return flight to Los Angeles. I went to the bar and enjoyed an ice cold liter bottle of Carlsberg beer as I sat outside in the warm, humid evening listening to the cacophony of birds in the park. Meanwhile, a fierce ceiling fan whirled above me, with little effect that I could tell. Later, I savored another delicious Indian dinner in the dining hall, along with a large number of scientists and researchers from around the world.
The next morning, I met with some of the technical staff in the Esri-India office before visiting the National Railway Museum nearby. I was amazed at the long history of railroads in India, dating back to the 1800’s when the country was an English colony. The 10 acre open-air museum was formally opened in 1977, dedicated to preserving the railroad heritage of India. Among the several dozen classic steam locomotives was the oldest operational steam locomotive in the world, the “Fairy Queen”, built in 1855. One of the most unique and fascinating collections was the “Patiala State Monorail Trainway”. It consisted of a single rail of iron track upon which the “load carrying” wheel ran. On the opposite side was one big steel wheel running on the ground to balance the load and keep the train upright. It was built in 1907 by Orenstein and Koppel of Berlin and remained in continuous operation until 1927.
At the other end of the spectrum of travel by rail was one of the most opulent and luxurious of the many plush private railcars that once transported Royalty and Maharajas around their kingdoms. The “Saloon of the Prince of Wales”, built for King Edward VII for his visit to India, was lavishly decorated with teak, velvet, gold, and ivory – several other saloon cars of similar luxury were also on display.
In stark contrast were the common passenger cars with their open air windows and hard wooden benches. I spent 2 hours walking amongst the old locomotives and railcars, and the experience was fascinating, despite the oppressive hot, humid weather. But I would not have missed this opportunity to visit the museum and see a unique part of Indian history. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Rail_Museum,_New_Delhi
Back at the Indian International Centre I decided to take a long walk through “Lodhi Gardens”, the huge park surrounding the centre. Not only did I enjoy the peace and quiet of the lovely tropical forest, I also discovered several beautiful 15th and 17th century mosques and tombs. Lodhi Gardens was once the estate of a powerful “Moghul” whose family ruled the region centuries ago. After walking through the gardens for a couple of hours (there were many young couples enjoying time together, away from their crowded homes), I returned to the bar at the centre for another ice cold Carlsberg before checking out.
Luckily, the trip to the airport went smoothly and soon I was checking in for the Swiss International flight to Los Angeles via Zurich. Flights from New Delhi to Europe typically depart around 1am, so as to arrive for the start of the business day at 7am. I was fortunate to be able to spend the time waiting for the flight in the new Lufthansa Business Class lounge – it was very comfortable and offered a wide selection of food and beverages. Once on board the flight to Zurich, we were served a very nice light Indian meal, and sleep came to me soon after.
Upon arrival in Zurich, I proceeded to the Swiss International arrivals lounge to take advantage of a shower and delicious breakfast. Since my connecting flight to LAX wasn’t scheduled to depart for another 6 hours, I decided to take a train to the small town of Zug in the heart of the Swiss Alps southwest of Zurich. It was a lovely journey through the Swiss countryside to the quaint old town on the shore of a beautiful lake and surrounded by spectacular snow-capped mountains. I spent a few hours walking around the town and along the lakeshore, taking photos and soaking up the historical atmosphere before boarding the train back to Zurich.
The 12 hour flight to LAX was once again smooth and very comfortable in Business Class. During the flight I watched a most interesting film titled “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”. The film is a romantic comedy-drama about a fisheries expert who is recruited by a consultant to help realize a sheikh’s vision of bringing the sport of fly fishing to the Yemen desert, initiating an upstream journey of faith to make the impossible possible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon_Fishing_in_the_Yemen Finally we landed at LAX and I encountered very long lines to clear immigration and customs, as well as a long, frustrating ride back home in horrific freeway traffic. But despite the experience of my return home, I brought back a treasure of memories from amazing places and a bundle of beautiful photos. India can be uncomfortable at times and very frustrating, but it’s also one of the most interesting and fascinating places on earth. Visiting India takes a great deal of patience and tolerance if one hopes to enjoy the experience. And despite having traveled to India many times I still find the experience much the same – uncomfortable, fascinating, scary, beautiful, ugly, strange, unique – the list goes on, yet it remains one of my favorite destinations!