by Max Brantley
I'd mentioned before and I'm surer now that the hundreds of pictures I took fall short of capturing the sensory overload of the place. The mass of humanity in the cities. The colorful clothing. The desperate poverty. The fragrances. The extraordinary food. The wildlife.
I start with a snapshot of Ellen and me at the Taj Mahal. No photo can prepare you for the scale and luster of the white marble monument to undying love when you first walk through the massive entrance gate. We both gasped.
And then there's the nearby Red Fort, where the man who built the Taj as a mausoleum for his wife spent the last years of his life under house arrest by an ungrateful son. Most of his days were spent in the room off this balcony, looking across the plains of Agra to the Taj.
Yes, we ate.
At Bukhara, one of the best restaurants in New Delhi, a northern Indian feast of kebabs, dal (slow-cooked lentil stew), naan and other good stuff cost maybe $30 a person, a very big ticket in India.
I was amused when the waiter, learning I was from Arkansas, brought an even pricier special menu for two (at 50 rupees to the dollar it would cost $140 for two) to display. It memorializes the day Bill Clinton ate there, along with Chelsea. A separate menu board contained the items on her all-vegetarian menu.
Here's my back-of-the-rickshaw view on a ride through the narrow market streets of Old Delhi, where the pedalers ply a daily trade carrying shoppers and the weary. Very few tourists.
We saw sights, such as Humayun's tomb in New Delhi.
The Victorian pile of a railroad station in Mumbai.
Here's a view over the vast Dhobi Gat, the wash tubs where Mumbai workers labor to launder towels and other commercial linens in an age-old process to which mechanical mangles have now been added.
The primary slum where "Slumdog Millionaire" was filmed was explained to us by a young native, now a pharmacy student, who took us through the narrow jumble of shanties to reveal a community of a million people with a bare handful of public toilets eking out livings by making pottery, reclaiming plastic from garbage, printing fabric, recycling cardboard and, below, recycling paint cans by burning off residue, working out dents and preparing the cans for re-use. A youngster proudly showed us a spot on a bridge by a debris-choked stream where the hero of the movie jumped in eluding authorities to escape into the labyrinth of the slum.
We had lunch at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, site of the 2008 terrorist attack (every hotel we encountered has stricter security than any U.S. airport), after taking a ferry from the foot of the nearby India Gate to Elephanta Island to see the ancient temple carvings.
What's for dinner? In Mumbai, it included crabs such as this one combined with chili peppers and oil.
In Cochin, we had a fragrant tour of "Jewtown," center of the spice trade. Emphasis on pepper.
We rode a houseboat like this one — though not loaded with young Indians drinking Kingfisher beer and having a high time — through the canals of Kerala.
At a beach restaurant in Goa, we had this baked pomfret, a sweet ocean fish served whole, but with a surprise — it had been split down the middle and stuffed with a fiery recheado sauce, red with pepper and rich with oil.
A young elephant kept at this Buddhist temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka, is thought to bring good luck.
At the world heritage site at Mallapuram, near Chennai, the butterball natural rock was one attraction, along with ancient rock carvings.
That's too much already, though there's so much more. Nothing I have captures the crush and funk and noise of the market streets lined by stands with vats of bubbling oil for fried snacks, the scent of rose and other essences (reminiscent of nothing so much as head shops of the 1960s), the intoxicating curry mixtures, the bells and drums of Hindu worship rituals, the roaming cattle, the occasional elephant lumbering to work, the busy monkeys, the packs of roaming dogs. It was a friendly and safe if sometimes challenging place, though the sight of begging mothers with frail children who importune travelers trapped in traffic jams is not easy to see. Three weeks is a bare scratch on the surface of this wildly divergent place. No, we never got sick.