Surreal highlights on West Travel Club Tour add humour and lustre to the subcontinent.
On the big intersection of a main road in Jaipur, the pink city of India, a cow stands stock still in front of traffic stopped for a red light.
It looks for all the world like it has stopped the 10-abreast motorbikes, old rod-brake bicycles, auto rickshaws, and small trucks and cars — and behind them the solid wedge of traffic as far as you can see.
“The latest innovation in Indian traffic management,” says superbly knowledgeable and humorous guide and facilitator Sorab Jassawalla, sitting alongside me in the front of the Travel Club Tours coach.
Just before the lights change, the cow strolls off towards the other side of the big intersection, where it will soon appear to stop the traffic there, in turn.
It’s a bit weird.
It’s a bit comical.
But there’s a strange whiff of possibility in what Sorab has said.
And that’s definitely India.
There are huge scripted moments on what turns out to be an extraordinary and memorable Travel Club Tour of India — the Taj Mahal in soft dawn light, its white marble turning a rosy gold with the early sun; Jaipur’s Amber Fort at night under a full moon as we are allowed in for a private dinner in a golden room — but there are unscripted moments, too.
When we visit a traditional fabric block printing house in Jaipur, we are not only measured for clothes made and delivered the next day but given a sari and turban-tying demonstration.
In Udaipur, artist “Sanju” Shiv Singh Solanki paints miniatures on some of the traveller’s fingernails. He is director of Janak Arts, where 22 artists paint and sell their work — “cutting out the middle men”.
That theme is continued throughout, where we visit businesses that directly support local communities.
And, indeed, community is the theme that comes through on the tour. There are 29 guests on our Travel Club Tour — two pairs of “mums and daughters”, women travelling without their husbands, “friends sharing rooms”, singles and solos and, of course, couples. Ages range from early 20s to late 80s. But the group stays together as one, mixes and matches and we become a family of sorts.
The community feeling is strong in the main cities and on our travelling days.
Take the longest day, from Jaipur to Udaipur. It is not a slog but feels like an exploration and education. Sorab and I present talks on many aspects of Indian life, including the history and present manifestation of caste. We talk about some of the 33 million Hindu gods, including a full telling of the story of Ganesh, the god who removes obstacles, who seems to have rather themed our trip.
I read a little of the writings of Indian writer and Gandhi predecessor Rabindranath Tagore, and some of my own.
We see Gandhi’s achievements on top of the framework of those who came before him, like Tagore and Dadabhai Naoroji, “The Grand Old Man of India”, whom Gandhi acknowledged as his mentor.
There is a wider context.
In Agra, I speak about the form and psychology of Indian classical music and we are treated to an exclusive performance by Madhu Chauhan, who has been playing sitar for 30 years, and tabla player Parmanand, who has been playing for 20.
And then the three of us combine in a words-and-music performance.
Making a tour and then letting it unfold is like writing a story. I am sensitive to pace — looking for a sense of momentum and purpose but no rush. I am looking for chapters that build one upon another, so that the story develops.
I am looking for an ending, which we have in the gentleness of Udaipur, with the space afforded by staying in a contemporary palace on a hill overlooking this city of white palaces around a blue lake.
Sometimes you need to hear echoes.
You need practicalities too, and on logistics are tour host Marie Waterman and our partners Imagine Cruising.
We are fortunate to be travelling with Sorab and excellent local guides.
And then one of our guests turns to us and says, spontaneously: “This is the best trip I’ve ever been on.”
And that makes it all worthwhile.
On the Travel Club Tour ...
Ann Stanton, Jen Shippey, Colleen McBroom, Jeneen Johnson, Carlyn Dyson, Anne Meecham, Michelle Atkins, Bobbie and Claire Fahie, Mary Metcalf, Irene Delane, Shane Landy, Janet Wroth, Elyse and Graham Bourgault Du Coudray, Barry and Susan Andrews, Erika Kuhaupt, Rob McDonald, Dennis Schram, Lorraine Bailey, Kevin and Linda Casey, Sylvia and Peter Blake, Sheila and Gary Nordon, Trish Dunkerley and Keith Bolitho. Tour host Marie Waterman. Tour guide and facilitator Sorab Jassawalla.