Passion Points: Learning
Dispatch from India
Twenty-year-old Indagare member Ritchey Howe is on a gap year before starting at Harvard in the fall. After spending three months in Paris she is currently in India and writes in about her impressions.
“India seems to be at a cultural crossroads. The country is emerging as an economical force, a manufacturing competitor with China, while simultaneously holding onto traditional social and religious values. When I flew into Delhi, I didn’t immediately feel as though I was in India. I was surrounded by other Western tourists, I drove by a McDonald’s, and saw advertisements for familiar brands such as Jockey and Subway. The larger cities within India have grasped, or have possibly been grasped by, Western influences.
“Varanasi, or Benares, is different. It is a true Indian city where the Hindu and Muslim religions simultaneously flourish. Every morning along the ghats (steps that lead down to a river) I see Hindus of all ages washing in the murky, polluted, yet extremely holy Ganga River. There are depictions of various Hindu gods grafittied on city walls, and almost every weekend there is some sort of religious festival that entails blasting music throughout the night and dancing in the streets. Within the Muslim neighborhoods of Varanasi the call to prayer from the muezzin can be heard at various times throughout the day and night, and women stroll the fabric markets donned in black burkas despite the city’s heat.
“While there are not many museums or sights to see within Varanasi, walking along the ghats of the Ganga River continues to excite me. Hindus travel for miles to receive the benefits of submerging within the divine water, or to cremate their deceased love ones on the banks. However, this hallowed river is infested with sewage, trash, and other mysterious substances. One morning, I decided to walk in silence and contemplate the spiritual power of the burning ghat, where the cremations occur. There were enormous piles of wood, and ashes still smoldering from the night before, and everywhere I looked there were various pieces of trash (including lots of Coca Cola bottles). It appeared more like a landfill than a holy place of death rituals. I desperately tried to see something spiritual rather than the daily mess of an Indian city. Varanasi remains the holy city of India yet it cannot help but face the consequences of globalization.
“As a New Yorker, I felt confident that I could meander through the streets of Varanasi. However, there is very little that can prepare one for the ever-present large cows and bulls, sleeping dogs, whizzing motorcycles, and honking auto-rickshaws. While dodging these various obstacles, I cannot help but smile. This is real India! There are few tourist groups and even fewer Westerners here, only two coffee shops, and no souvenir shops.
“Varanasi is not a city for those who want to experience a romantic India. It is a real Indian city where one can witness true Indian lifestyles, which can include throwing trash into the river or hitting cows to get them to move out of the street. But we travel so that we can be exposed to new customs and learn. For my desires, Varanasi is perfect. Spending time in a city that is so different from my own is enriching. It is the true, dirty, bustling, somewhat confused, traditional, and ever-beautiful India.”
Delhi: Behind the Scenes
In addition to the big name hotels, restaurants and shops, many of today’s high-end travelers crave the secret, authentic spots only a true insider can reveal. Fiona Caulfield—author of the Love India travel guide series and self-described travel junkie—is well-aware of this fact. Her beautiful book Love Delhi (available on the Indagare Souk) covers everything from the city’s best-loved restaurants to lesser-known gems, like an Old Delhi tea gallery run by chai masters and the best places for buying Indian miniature painting, fashion or Bollywood bling.
The title of Caufield’s series operates on multiple levels. For one, the books, which make wonderful gifts for anyone traveling to the subcontinent, are clearly a labor of love. Each one comes in a silk pouch, crafted by the Bangalore designer Sonali Sattar, and is handprinted and handbound in India on recyclable, non-bleached paper. In addition, the beautiful covers—all made from Tibetan raw silk—were developed by Sonam Dubal, currently one of the biggest names in Indian fashion. On another level, the title refers to the project’s philanthropic component. A percentage of all sales goes to the Love Travel Foundation, a non-profit that donates to charities throughout India; each book also lists reputable city-specific charities, and, throughout, organizations that contribute to either environmental or social sustainability—like the country’s government-run craft centers—are indicated with the Love guide’s hand logo.
The Love guides showcase only those places authentic enough to make one fall in love with a city. Says Caulfield: “I believe falling in love with a city is just as exciting as falling in love with a person. Your senses become engaged and you simply feel more alive. . .”
Just Back From… Colonial Williamsburg
I admit that a visit to Colonial Williamsburg was not at the top of my list of family vacations, but it should have been. Recently, my wife and I took our kids (age 7 and 10) back in time to the 18th century to spend a weekend immersed in our country’s great history.
Part of my hesitation with visiting this interactive destination was a potential of Disneyfication. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Disneyworld. My family, like many, has had our magic moments there.) But Williamsburg is so much more; it affords an opportunity and rare moment when history comes to life, and we could experience first-hand the loyalty and inspiration our founding fathers embodied. Actors dressed in period costume play the parts of shop owners, farmers and such dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. We watched as the characters (who have gone through lengthy training) debated issues of slavery and foreign policy, danced with their wives at the Governor’s Palace and patronized the local taverns. My kids loved asking questions and interacting with the townspeople, and I adored seeing them engaged in American history instead of video games.
We stayed at the Williamsburg Inn, a property founded by John D. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. The inn has hosted Queen Elizabeth II and several U.S. presidents, and the gracious and warm staff is prepared to cater to the needs of discerning travelers. The 62 rooms are beautifully appointed with traditional American furniture, and each feature separate sitting areas. Luckily not everything is authentically 18th century: the Williamsburg Inn also has Wifi throughout, a fantastic spa and access to three golf courses.
The hotel’s restaurant was excellent, as were the offerings in the town’s taverns. Two favorites were Shields Tavern (422 East Duke of Gloucester Street; 757-229-2141) and King’s Arms Tavern (416 East Duke of Gloucester Street; 757-229-2141).
Who Should Go: For a quick family trip that will feed an intellectually curious side, foster a sense of pride and patriotism and afford a fun and stimulating educational experience, Colonial Williamsburg is an ideal fit. People of all ages will enjoy themselves here—like my kids, I learned a lot in this history trove myself.
Getting There: Fly to Richmond, VA or Norfolk, VA (a 1.5-hour flight) and drive one hour to Colonial Williamsburg. Or consider an American History road trip: Williamsburg is just a 2.5-hour drive south of Washington, D.C.
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