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India kindles common senses

The eye and the emotions are everywhere engaged

Email|Print| Text size + By Laura Hambleton
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2007

KERALA , India -- Every detail at the Marari Beach Resort seemed somehow coordinated with the natural world of southern India. Coconut palms bent in perfect symmetry away from the wind off the Indian Ocean. Rope hammocks swung gently in the breeze. A path lined with gigantic banana trees opened up to reveal a large, heated pool.

One early morning in the diffuse December sunlight, my husband, John, slipped on his sneakers for a run on the beach. He ran about 50 yards past the resort's beach perimeter, only to encounter the unplanned. There, a couple of fishermen squatted in the sea grass, and snarling dogs dared him to take one step farther.

John made an abrupt U-turn, ran through the resort, and exited onto a dirt road -- only to face more unexpected encounters. First, he ran through the middle of a religious service; parishioners had spilled out of a church and were on their knees praying on both sides of a road. No one seemed to mind the intrusion. And then a mother and her daughter biked alongside him to practice their English. "My name is Madu," said the small girl, her arms wrapped around her mother's waist. "What's yours?"

This is India: At one turn you see the rawness of human life, at another you experience a sublime meeting infused with kindness. A friend who lived in India for years told me -- in what I later realized was a subtle caution -- that Indians do everything, from living to dying and all in between, on the streets.

It is that fear of coming face to face with the messiness of life amid India's billion-plus population that makes many tourists cocoon themselves in a soup-to-nuts tour. We did, too, deciding to take care of the basic logistics beforehand, planning most details through a New Delhi travel agent for our own tailored trip. He booked us into good hotels and hired drivers to ferry us every inch of the way.

As a result, some of the countryside and cities passed by our car windows unexplored. Yet, as we found at Marari Beach, India has a way of seeping into even the most cloistered visit. After a few days we began to revel in the sea of people, the unexpected turns of events, and the stark contrasts of street life and tourist spots.

It meant embracing the unplanned. One afternoon, we found ourselves sipping tea with our driver's cousin in his humble business. On another day, a group of men swarmed us at the Taj Mahal -- they wanted their picture taken with us. We happily obliged.

In nearly three weeks, we traveled almost the length of the country: from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the largest city and India's commercial capital, to the Kerala beaches in the south; to Udaipur, Ranakpur, and Jodhpur in Rajas than province; and finally to New Delhi, the capital, and Agra. We stayed in former palaces and clambered around 15th-century forts. We dickered for pashmina scarves and Rajasthan daggers. We sipped masala tea and ate naan (the flat bread) -- piles of it at every meal.

It didn't take long to realize that our trip would have twists and turns.

On our second night, we were staying on a houseboat in Kerala. The captain, Xavier, docked the vessel along a wall, and beckoned me to follow. We skipped along narrow concrete ledges; one slip would put me in the water.

"Do you want some bronze?" he seemed to ask as we walked.

I nodded yes, not one to miss a shopping opportunity. I kept apace, stretching my arms out to keep balance. My children trod behind me like ducklings. Finally, we reached a hut at the water's edge. Three small children played outside. Their father directed me to the side of the structure, where he opened a large white box.

I expected him to pull out something shiny, but his hand emerged with something wet and bluish with red antennas.

"Prawns," Xavier said with a big smile.

They were enormous tiger-striped prawns, or what I would call lobsters. Did I want to buy a few? Indeed I did: half a dozen for dinner.

That night as we anchored alongside a rice paddy, we sat on the top deck of our houseboat built of wood, bronze, and reeds, eating grilled lobster.

Thousands of ducks swam around us. Women paddled by in wooden canoes. We watched coconut palms and mango and banana trees darken against the sky as night came.

A few days later, while my husband was negotiating running routes at the Marari resort, I contorted my body to imitate my seemingly ancient and pencil-thin yoga instructor. He told us to close one nostril at a time to breathe. We followed with downward facing dog, cat pose, and advanced balances on our forearms.

I studied my neighbor to keep up, but she was no swifter than I. We ended with a headstand. I was able to get my feet in the air, linger there a moment or two, and come down without crashing.

That became one of the mottoes for the trip: Go with the flow and hope for safe landings.

In Rajasthan a few days later, our driver, Pindu, taught my children how to count to 10 in Hindi , and the words for "How are you?" and "I like the food." We quizzed him on his life: He, his wife, and two children lived with his parents. His marriage was arranged. He stopped at the Hindu temple nearly every day to worship.

He was a wonderful counterbalance to several guides whom we picked up along the way. One was full of sayings that rhymed , such as "no hurry, no worry, no chicken curry" and "full power, 24 hour." But when he came to describing the City Palace or the Lake Palace in Udaipur, or the palace where Mughal kings honeymooned with new wives, his reams and reams of detail were almost incomprehensible.

After a while, we stopped paying attention, smiling occasionally to appease him. My children wandered ahead, looking at murals of miniature paintings of hunt scenes, or battles of elephants, or craning their necks to see the top of the wedding-cake-like architecture. They looked for ornate doorways in which to pose for pictures. And they spied Indian men hidden behind lacy, cutout windows.

We declined the guide's suggestion of government shops for cashmere sweaters and gold jewelry. We asked him to take us to where Indians shop. After many requests, he obliged.

" OK, OK ," he said, telling Pindu something in Hindi.

We hustled along a street much like New York 's 42 d Street, where shopkeepers sold everything from electronics to cheap clothing. We weren't looking for anything in particular, just some ambience and a break from tourists.

After two days, we left Udaipur. Pindu drove us to Ranakpur and India's largest Jain Temple and to the 15th-century Kumbhalgarh Fort. The sun was hazy and made the mountainsides look like Flemish paintings. Pindu pointed out fields of mustard and onions, haystacks for animals, and cow patties drying in the sun. The dried manure would be used to heat homes in the winter, he said.

Little towns were littered with trash. Cows, pigs, and dogs rooted through the refuse. Pindu told us stories about the cows, which are sacred in India.

"They give milk, like a mother," he said. "That's why they are sacred."

Once a cow stops giving milk, he said, she is allowed to wander the streets. We learned to have patience with the animals as they meandered in our way.

At one turn, we found ourselves behind a truck and crew tarring the road.

We came to a standstill. Children swarmed our car. "Toothpaste, shampoo, pens," they constantly chanted, pressing their noses against the car windows.

"It is what tourists give them," Pindu said. "It's OK to give them something."

We weren't so sure. It had become one of the most difficult parts of traveling through India: how to deal with beggars.

Later, in New Delhi, another driver named Vishwas told us not to give to them. "There are a lot of cheaters who pretend they're handicapped," he said.

We decided that we would give to a charity rather than to everyone who knocked on our windows. But we also didn't want to shun them.

Outside the Taj Mahal, a man crippled by polio inched his way up to John as he was getting in the car. The man walked on all fours: Shoes were on his feet; purple flip-flops were on his hands. My husband stopped and bent over.

"How are you doing? How are you feeling?" John asked him.

"I'm fine," the man answered.

John asked about his condition and the types of medication he was taking. The man told him, and John wished him well. "Nice to meet you," John said. The beggar smiled back.

Inside the car, my children were amazed -- at my husband.

"You asked a man with polio, how he was?" said Gavin, 11. "How do you think he was?"

My husband shrugged, saying it was always good to ask. One never knows what gem you might learn from someone, even in a brief encounter .

Laura Hambleton can be reached at hambleton.laura@gmail.com.

If You Go

How to get there

British Airways flies from Boston to Mumbai daily, stopping in London. We booked our entire trip -- internal flights, houseboats, hotels, drivers and guides -- through Sadhana Travel Services in New Delhi. We often ate dinner at our hotels or went to restaurants recommended by our guides or drivers. The houseboat cost about $355 for one night and three meals for five.

Sadhana Travel
011-91-114-161-8278
sadhanatravels.com

Where to stay

Ann's Residency
Fort Cochin
011-91-484-221-8024
annsresidency.com
Doubles about $60, with breakfast.

Marari Beach Resort
Kerala
011-91-478-286-3801
cghearth.com
Doubles about $220, with breakfast.

Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel
Udaipur
011-91-294-242-2860
jagatniwaspalace.com
Doubles about $70, with breakfast. The hotel serves a lovely dinner.< p> Fateh Bagh Hotel
Ranakpur
011-91-293-428-6186
hrhhotels.com
Doubles about $90, with breakfast.

Aodhi Hotel
Kumbhalgarh
011-91-295-424-2341
hrhhotels.com
Doubles about $90, with breakfast.

Ajit Bhawan Palace
Jodphur
011-91-291-251-3333
ajitbhawan.com
Doubles about $150, with breakfast.

Ahuja Residency
New Delhi
011-91-112-462-2255
ahujaresidency.com
Doubles about $70, with breakfast.

Where to eat

The Lodi Garden Restaurant
New Delhi
011-91-112-465-5054
Entrees about $25-$45.

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