We recently returned from India on a tour organised and led by Michael Sweeney of Zanzibar Travel, and what a feast for the senses it was.
It was our fourth trip to the sub-continent and this time we headed for the relatively un-touristy State of Gujarat. This meant that some of the heritage sights were less manicured than we’d found elsewhere, but also (unlike many tourist sites in Asia) there was hardly anyone else there. Gujarat, one guide told us, doesn’t need tourism as it is already prosperous. We saw evidence of this in its many ceramics and textile factories and in its agriculture, which seemed to thrive despite seriously dry conditions.
Gujarat has an abundant share of beautifully-crafted Hindu and Jain temples. Cooling one’s feet on marble floors, while worshipers perform their rituals to the scent of incense and flower offerings and the sound of bells, is a special experience. We were always welcomed, but never more so than in one tiny temple by the highway which we visited on the off chance while our driver was having his breakfast. The locals were celebrating the birthday of the temple’s god that day. People asked where we were from then plied us with bowls of sweet and spicy rice pudding, a wonderful gesture towards a group of funny-looking strangers.
You don’t go to India to see lions – or do you? One of the highlights of the trip was a very early morning safari in the Gir Forest National Park, the last stronghold of Asiatic lions in Asia. It’s not often that you have a large lion casually wander past your jeep doing his morning rounds, just two metres away.
No trip is complete either without visiting local markets and the first we found was on the former Portuguese island of Diu, one of the few places in the state where alcohol is allowed. The quality of the produce is high when compared to your average supermarket so it is no wonder that Indians still prefer to shop this way. The colours just stunned us – crimson pomegranates and scarlet strawberries zinging against the yellows and oranges of people’s clothing.
Gujarat is fabled for fabrics & handicrafts. After a trip around the renowned Calico Museum in Ahmedabad we were prepared for visiting the epicentre of these crafts in the remote desert region of Kutch. Here we saw fabric being printed with wood blocks and women embroidering mirrored bedspreads in the cool of traditional clay huts.
One of the more unusual tourist experiences in Kutch was a highly controlled visit to the “white desert” on the Rann of Kutch which, at the western end, is the Pakistan border. We walked about a mile up to a curious cuboid structure based on the shape of salt crystals that offered a viewing platform, while laughing Indian families and school parties passed us by on camel carts.
The desert has a crust of salt which makes it appear white in places, though not as white as we’d expected having already seen the weird white landscape and salt pans around the coast.
After the relatively rural days in Kutch we were anxious about going back to a big polluted city. We’d flown into Mumbai at the start of the trip and found the area near the airport a horrible mix of old India, with all its dust and dirt, and brash new western-style shopping malls. However, the centre of the city couldn’t be more different and being by the sea meant the air was cleaner.
Having an excellent guide for two days made the experience very memorable. Alongside the grand former colonial buildings, Sudha showed us many aspects of everyday life, such as the “dhobi ghat” covering 15 acres in the heart of the city. Nearly 7,000 “dhobis” (washermen) each day hand wash, hang out to dry and iron hundreds of tonnes of material from hotels, hospitals and private homes. Then to the daily distribution point in the city for tiffin (lunch) boxes. Lunch prepared at home, usually by a wife or mother, collected by a “tiffin walla” (or more correctly “dabbawalas”, brought from the suburbs by train/bicycle to the distribution point then delivered by the city courier to the individuals in their offices.
All things considered the whole trip ran like clockwork, transport, guides, logistics, and we’d do it all again tomorrow.
M & J Clarke – Herefordshire