Saturday, 11 April 2015

In Bangladesh with World Vision 2015: The story behind the photos

Thank you for taking the time to read about my Bangladesh and World Vision experience. Like many of my travels, it takes time after I return to fully realize the impact of such a journey. This blog is made up of the journal entries I kept while in the areas of Dhaka, Barisal, and Kalkini of Bangladesh. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

How it all began:

When I was small, Canadian television was plastered with commercials from World Vision and organizations like it unveiling the horrid living conditions of children from around the world. The only difference between me and those I saw on the screen was chance of our births. I had promised myself that when I was able to, I would sponsor a child.

During my first full time year of teaching, around Easter 2007, I found myself home alone. I am not sure why I was…someone was always home, and it was rare that I was home; I was working full time while completing courses for my Masters of Education. God may have had a play in this. I heard a knock at the door around midday to find 2 girls, around 16 years old standing in front of me wearing proud their World Vision badges and profiles of children in need in hand. To their surprise, I had welcomed them in with enthusiasm. You can choose the child you wish to sponsor, as well as where they are from. In hand they had 4 ready profiles. These were the children who were now considered critical. I imagine that sponsorship is similar to adoption, with the newborns and younger babies going first. I asked for the child that had been waiting the longest. It was then that I had a first glimpse of Ranojit.

April 5th:

Today I write from an Etihad plane, fully boarded and about to depart from Abu Dhabi to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

I’ve been sponsoring a little boy named Ranojit since Easter time in 2007. Eight years later, I finally get to meet him and his family. Feeling blessed for this doesn’t begin to describe the gratitude I have for being able to do this.

I regret that I haven’t sent him letters over the time of the sponsorship (a few had been written but never sent). I am hoping that this visit would make up for that. This trip would have been next to impossible from Canada. Living in the UAE has made this and other dreams possible. God may have also had a hand in this. When I contacted World Vision in November 2014 to start planning, they informed me that this was the last year that World Vision would be working directly with Ranojit’s village, for now they were reaching a level of independence. Had I waited another year to come, it would have been too late.

There have been recent advisories to Ranojit’s area and have suspended sponsorship visits according to their website that I checked before leaving for the airport. Mine as of now has been confirmed. I’m nervous, but I’m confident in my safety through this adventure. I can’t wait to share this story with friends and loved ones. I hope this encourages others to do the same, or some other way to help out their communities using their passion for change. People have asked me why. Why World Vision? Why Canon’s Cause? Why Bridge House? Simply because it makes my heart happy to see happiness in others. In a way, I’m completely selfish!

April 6th

The hotel here in Dhaka is peaceful and is of high standards for the area. Despite the craziness of the city and looks of the mattress, I had a really good sleep. Today I will have a brief meeting in the city at the World Vision office here in Dhaka, and then a 7 hour car ride into the country to the area of Barisal. Today an older gentleman caught me deep in thought at the hotel breakfast area as I looked out into the fountains. “We’re so busy with our day-to-day lives that we must stop to look at the beauty around us”. Exactly, sir.


After breakfast, I headed down to the hotel lobby ready to meet my World Vison guide. This is where I met Santosh, who will be with me every step of the way.

Security brief:

A kind and knowledgeable man named Ishtiaque (Special Advisor to National Director) invited Santosh and I into the World Vision office and quickly into the meeting room where a PowerPoint slide and a stack of information was waiting for me. We were also joined by a woman named Rita, a manager to greet me and help answer any questions.

I was horrified by a few slides and was introduced to the idea of, “petrol bombs”, similar to what we in the west would call “malitov cocktails”, small man-made explosives in which travelers are not immune. Despite warnings before I left, I was clearly unaware of the depths of political strife in Bangladesh. They told me about “hartals”, which are political demonstrations or labour strikes. These can be announced or unannounced and can wreak havoc. Our security would be monitored from the National office in case of such an occurrence. 

Hmmm….leave it to me to finally reach the brinks of exploring somewhere that I actually put my own security at risk. God, please guide us on our travels. Ease my worries and protect us.


Travel to Barisal:

In many places en route to Barisal, I felt like I was in Old Delhi: low power lines, streets lined with shops the size of closets. I would see working along the side of the road, men in their skilled trades of wood, aluminum, and hard metals, all simple crafts and materials displayed with honour and precision. Many places would have packages of chips and other savouries, leading me to question how often and expensive it is for these small businesses to have these products brought to them. The traffic is simply lawless.

All of this craziness interrupted by amazing serenity of fertile lands and rivers stretching beyond what you can see.


Despite having a great sleep last night, I slept more in the van during travel. Our original path to Barisal has been changed: I have to put my full faith in the World Vision team to keep us safe. There has been an announcement while we were traveling of a strike and it’s unclear of the extent of the disruptions that this may cause.

The roads we are travelling on are narrow 2-way passages with people and vendors on either side. Rickshaws and other small vehicles are pulled over haphazardly. The traffic is made of various speeds, all trying to overtake the other. With little space to move, it is of little wonder why head-on collisions are the most common traffic accident in the country.


Arrival in Barisal:

They had just asked me if it was possible if I could change my flight back to Abu Dhabi. Fears of the hartal are increasing, and it is unknown at this point if I’ll be able to travel back to Dhaka on April 8th safely. Inshallah, this will not upset my visit with Ranojit’s family tomorrow, and everything else will go on as schedule as well.

I had spoken with Mohamed in Abu Dhabi who has been worried sick. I kept the conversation light and hope I sounded bubbly enough to put his fears at bay, but I am scared. I’m scared of the unknown, of petrol bombs, of strikes. I wonder what the cost of changing my flight will be. I wonder what the reaction for friends and family will be. I wonder how the people of Bangladesh cope with this fear on a regular basis.

April 7 (Day of visit)

There was even more to this day than the visit to Ranojit and his family. I could never have expected this!

The day started off in the Kalkini World Vision office (Area Development Project, ADP), a humble building, home to amazing relief workers inside. On arrival, we saw about a dozen teenaged local girls dressed up and demonstrating for World Health Day. Happy to join in the fun, they put me in a matching World Vision t-shirt and paper hat, and I happily stood with them for a short while for photos.

I met the amazing people behind the scenes, including Stephen, who has been translating Ranojit’s letters to me since the beginning. They presented me with flowers in the garden and I had some quick pleasantries. I quickly started to realize what a visit from a sponsor can mean.

Before we left, they had asked me if I was comfortable riding a motorbike with a guide. The road is poor and not meant for typical vehicles. Otherwise it would be a 15 minute walk in very humid weather. I had to pass on the mortor bike as I decided to wear a dress today. The walk is okay with me!

Ranojit’s village was off the main road at the end of a long path. On the way, we had passed Ranojit’s current school (equivalent to junior high or cycle 2), as well as old  his grammar school. I could tell from the looks of a few people on the path that I was the first foreigner that they may have encountered. 

Approaching the village, Santosh asked me if I would be able to recognize Ranojit. Despite having many pictures with me I suddenly had the fear that I would mistake another boy for him. Those fears were squashed…I looked up at the village entrance and my eyes gazed upon a boy whom I’ve only known in pictures, holding flowers, ready to greet me and welcome me into his world.

He held out his hand and walked me to his home. The adults and young children of the entire village were there as well (school aged children were in school). Many pictures were taken. I couldn’t believe the welcome and the impact of my simple visit has had.

Ranojit’s home consisted of 3 main rooms: the sleeping/greeting area, family area, and the kitchen. The house was clean and of wonderful colours. The home reminded me to those you might see in the remote areas of the Dominican Republic; no running water or electricity, and a clay oven heated by wood for food to be prepared.

We sat in the front room, in the dark, free from the harsh sunlight. As sweat beaded down my face, Ranojit’s mother started to fan me. I was very grateful. Ranojit’s English is simple yet clear. He could understand most of what I was saying, but didn’t have the confidence to speak much quite yet (just like my current Arabic). Thanks to translation by my guides Santosh and Ashish, we spoke of great football players, his dream of becoming a teacher, him helping his mother with carrying drinking water to the home from large distances, and being a good brother to his younger siblings. He has his exams coming up but is confident that he will do well. He had asked his headmaster yesterday for permission for the day off in light of my visit. I was reluctant to ask about his father as I noticed his absence, but it was brought up by the family that he was currently working in Singapore, in hopes for better wages as a skilled carpenter.

Before the end of our conversations, I looked up to see at least 50 smiling faces that have made their way into the home since I arrived. They loved to see me and hear my English, they said. They enjoyed the way I sounded. Before leaving the area, we would delight in photos with the other villagers, and refreshments of oranges and juice and cookies provided by the family.

It was hard to leave the village. The women had asked me to come back and made me promise that I would never forget them. How could I? They will always be a part of me.

Hand in hand and in front of the line, Ranojit walked me to his school. We would pass the grammar school first…the children were on a recess and rushed the path and joined our journey for a small time only to be called back by their teacher. They called out Ranojit’s name, and I was told that they were treating him like a hero for a day.

At his current school, I was greeted by his very happy headmaster and headmistress. They were excited to see me, show me the school, and delighted that I was an experienced teacher. They lead us to Ranojit’s classroom. There were about 25 boys on the left, and about 25 girls on the right. Their instructor graciously let me interrupt his classroom. I greeted them from Canada and wished them all the best on their upcoming examinations.

The staff then brought me into their meeting room, and were very proud to show me the table and chairs they were using that was only made possible by World Vision. Words of mutual thanks were said. I tried to express the best that I could, that the success of their students was because of their hard work, and that I recognized that.

After making our way out of the village, Ranojit and his family joined me at a Community Based Organization (CBO) that is unrelated to World Vision and is for-profit, but share the same goals. Their current focus was the children of the area and their education. For them, it was an amazing accomplishment to bring basic notebooks to their students. Their next endeavor was to create a small market on the property ensuring fair prices for all. Again, I tried to express my thanks and recognition of their hard work as I am sensitive to their plight.

Back to the Area Development Project (ADP), Ranojit’s family, myself, and the staff at World Vision broke bread and enjoyed lunch together. Unfortunately, I was the only one not having the dexterity to eat with my hands and having an intolerance for spice. I was grateful that the chefs at the office was able to cater to my dietary needs and provided me with a fork as I devoured the prawns, chicken, fish, vegetables, and steamed rice. It was really tasty to me, though I know it would have been tasteless to them. The family was curious about my diet and my inability to digest the spices of their country.

After lunch we were treated with a performance by local Bengali dancers. The original plan, I was told, was for me to travel to them, but due to road travelling concerns, is was safer for us to remain at the ADP and have them come to us. They treated me like their guest of honour and I was completely blown away by their talents and colourful costumes. For one of the last dances, they girls invited me to join. Although incredibly shy when it comes to dancing on the spot, I let loose and joined them enthusiastically. When a child asks you to dance, you dance.

We left his family for a brief time at the center as the team took me to what they called a “child-friendly area”. This would be their poorest of the poor. The pictures of clean and freshly dressed children do not tell the whole story. They were brightly dressed in the World Vision’s orange, and they had just received their backpacks that day. These children would have been about the age of junior kindergarten, or KG1. Many were excited to share their talents with me. I was presented with individuals who sang songs, shared their favourite bits of poetry, and their cultural games. Like the UAE and Canada, they are trying to stress learning through play. With this group of teachers, I again expressed thanks because I am well aware of the work they are putting in behind the scenes with these amazing children. To the children, I expressed my wonder and amazement of their beauty and talent.

Outside the small schoolhouse a small crowd began to gather. Many were wishing to see their first foreigner. We walked down the path where we would see rudimentary boats along the river, looking much like large canoes with an enclosed space, where they call home.

My time in Kalkini was almost finished. We made our way back to the ADP where Ranojit’s family was waiting to say goodbye. I presented them with chocolates and a promise to keep up communication. I couldn’t believe the time was over.

After making our way back to Barisal, Santosh and I took some rest and enjoyed our last dinner together. Our dinner for 2 included a large portion of Pad Thai, a shared crown chicken soup and bottled water. It had the cost of 800 takka including tip. Converted, that is about $10 US. It started to storm. When it rains in Bangladesh, it really rains and everything stops. We were very close to the hotel, but stayed in the restaurant until there was a bit of a clearing. While we were waiting, Santosh got an update from the security advisors. We were given the go-ahead to travel back to Dhaka tomorrow, as long as we left by 7am.

April 8: Traveling back to Dhaka

We had a quick breakfast this morning and quickly got it in gear to head out for our 7 hour trek back to Dhaka. It was a different restaurant, only a few doors down, with breakfast for 2 being 260 takka ($3.40). Incredible.

At one point our travel came to a standstill. There was no one moving on the roads. I thought we were completely stuck, and felt my blood pressure begin to rise. The driver got out of the vehicle and asked what the reason was, and it looked like the Prime Minister was traveling through the area. I was frustrated that she chose to go by car but relieved that the standstill wasn’t due to hartal.

Part of our journey between Dhaka and Barisal is by ferry. On our way back to Dhaka we had a nice view of the river. There were many people who got out of their vehicles to view the river closer, but there were also many sellers from green coconut to popcorn. My comfort level wasn’t up for dealing with vendors, so I was again grateful for Santosh who stayed with me in the vehicle.

I noticed that there was an ambulance that boarded the ferry, and I asked about it. I was curious…it couldn’t have been an emergency. Was it a patient transfer? It was neither. Official vehicles like this are used for safe travel in case of hartal action. Official vehicles were almost guaranteed safe passage. I’m not sure who was in the ambulance or how they obtained it, but I applauded their creative thinking.

I looked forward to going back to the hotel and off the route. Thanks to my non-working data roaming package from Etisalat, I was going through Facebook withdrawal and couldn’t wait to show my World Vision visit through photos and videos with family and friends. I was however, not quite ready to say goodbye to Santosh and my humbling World Vision experience in Kalkini. Somehow, both of us felt that this wasn’t the last time that we were going to see each other…perhaps my time with World Vision hasn’t come to an end after all.

April 9: Dhaka tour

I couldn’t leave Dhaka without knowing more about it and the history of Bangladesh and how it came to be, so I had my travel agency in Abu Dhabi also arrange for a city tour on my last day. The morning brought us to the local university, to monuments, and to the Sheikh’s home which is now a museum. My smiles of curiosity and wonder were quickly brought to tears as I was shown the shear bloodbath that remains on display from his assassination, and the toll that independence has cost the country. My tour guide Sharmin was knowledgeable and friendly as she opened my eyes to this wonderful country that has been exploited and forgotten by the Western world.

There was slow traffic as it was the beginning of the weekend for the Bengalis. I returned back to the hotel just after 6, enough time for a quick freshen-up and pack so I could be out of the hotel and en route to the airport by 7. The hartal was ending, and the city was gripped in traffic chaos….all of us were silent with the known worry of my making it to my plane back to Abu Dhabi on time. The distance was not far, but the snarling of traffic makes everything take an extremely long amount of time. I know that God had continued to watch over me, and I made it safe and sound to the airport on time.


Like India, Bangladesh seems to have a “white privilege”, especially with women. I was quickly guided to the shortest lines and given priority in many situations. Thinking back to the hotel in Barisal, the military guard stopped all who was using the elevator so that I could use it alone with my guide. I would not test my luck, and always be responsible for my own safety and aware of my surroundings, but people should not fear travelling to the area for the sake of fear itself. I hope Bangladesh continues on her way to settling the disruptions with the hartals.
At the gate, airport personnel greeted me with a free upgrade to business class for my flight back. I was thankful for this gift and stretched out on one of Etihad’s reclining beds. I said a prayer of gratitude for the ability to lay down during the flight, and for the safety I had while making my dream of meeting Ranojt come true, and quickly fell asleep.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


“Cara, do they have cows in the streets like I have seen in the movies?”

“Not where I was in Delhi, but here in Jaipur where I am today, they are all over the place!”

My mom let out a sigh, I know she was wishing she could be with me, just to see some of the sights for herself. “But I’ll find out why mom, it’s really something to see!” The phone fizzled and the connection went dead as it so often does…one of the many prices of living overseas and calling home.

The following blog is about my experience in India…from the truly sweet to the extreme repugnant. I thought I did just about the craziest thing last year by moving half way across the world to Abu Dhabi, to where I knew no one, and although using my 8 years of professional teaching experience, I would feel like I was starting over. Travelling alone, in a country like India, is a completely different risk in itself.

Each section starts off with a quote from my itinerary from the ITL travel agency located in Abu Dhabi. As days went on before I took off, I would often read the itinerary and get real excited for this experience that was to come. After the daily description from the itinerary, I’ll try and give you the play-by-play and see if it matches up to what was expected. Thank you for your time to read!

“Arrive in Delhi, you will be met and assisted by a Tamarind representative and will be transferred to your hotel. India’s capital and major gateway to the country, Delhi is contemporary and a bustling metropolis which successfully combines in its fold of the ancient and the modern. Its strategic location was one of the prime reasons why successive dynasties chose it as their seat of power. New Delhi also reflects the legacy the British left behind. Overnight in Delhi.”

I felt terrible for the representative that I had met in India. I was told in Abu Dhabi that should anything happen to the flight with respect to delays, that the Tamarind company would be informed. The plane waited in Abu Dhabi an extra hour due to baggage delays and late passengers. I am sure that if I were that late, the plane would take off without me. We have learned here that not all passports are created equal. So…I knew that I was going to be late from the start. Landing in India things seemed fine until I was at passport control. Like the UAE, this country seems to be full of meaningless lineups with no one waiting their turn and every piece of paper is ruled by the ‘rubber stamp’. There was another hour wasted. When I met the representative, I was all smiles to see my name in black in white in the sign that he was holding. Not that it was any of my fault, but I apologized for the delay (he wasn’t informed of any of the delays)…he was more than understanding. I was looking forward to getting in the car. Going outside, the heat hit me. It was almost as hot as Abu Dhabi, but with a very sticky humidity. The driver found us shortly and we were off.

I was taken aback by the driving on the other side of the road. I also noticed that on the large city roads on which we were driving on that there were usually 4 lanes paved. Nothing strange until you grasp that there were 6-7 lanes of active traffic! I knew better than to panic. My driver knew the roads…and he maneuvered with the best of them. I had never seen even so much as a fender bender while I was in the country, I was very surprised! Some wore helmets on their motorcycles while others didn’t. I perhaps didn’t realize that I was really out of my familiar territory until I saw a Sikh gentleman riding his motorcycle with a bandit-like bandanna wrapped around his nose and mouth, while being neatly tucked into his turban.

Around the city streets, you would see the odd cow in the road, apartment dwellings, areas of extreme riches, and areas of extreme poverty. I have been in impoverished countries before, but not quite like this. Even in the city core of Puerto Plata or Santo Domingo, you might seem groups of homeless individuals in varying states of health and clothes on their back. Here, there seemed to be communities of homelessness wherever there was space to be had: out in the open, under bridges, along the river shorelines. If the children had clothes on their backs, they seemed to be lucky compared to others.

I was comfortable…that was until we stopped for a red light. Two women of extreme poverty knocked on my window at different times…they were able to see that 2 Indian men were escorting a white tourist. Not knowing the area…and I wasn’t getting any advice from them…I had to keep the window up. I felt terrible turning them away, but I just froze. I once thought that I came from humble beginnings, now I know that I was born into privilege.  

Even though the flight was only three and a half hours (not including the delays), I was exhausted and was thrilled to see that my hotel room was similar to the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr (Abu Dhabi) when it came to the style and quality of the bed. Alone in the room, the implications of travelling alone had begun to sink in. I was still high on adrenaline of the venture, but second guessing my choice of destination based on my car ride from the airport. Feeling the need for familiar food, I went down to the coffee shop to order a small dinner. I was thrilled to see that they had all-day breakfast on the menu. To those of you who know me well, this was big. When finished, I was asked if I would like anything else. I asked, “do you have tea available?” “Tea madame? Yes of course I have tea!” Cara, you are in India. It was a bit of a "face-palm" moment. Tomorrow we would be driving to Jaipur. I was happy to be leaving Delhi.

“Today morning drive to Jaipur (252 kms/5.5 hours) check into your hotel. Jaipur is the gateway to the magnificent and vibrant state of Rajasthan. Evening take a stroll in the markets of Jaipur for the traditional dresses and shoes, curio shops, blue pottery, etc. Overnight in Jaipur.”

At exactly 8:30am as planned, my driver was there in front of the hotel lobby to pick me up to travel to Jaipur for the next few days. I was thrilled to have the same driver throughout my whole experience. We were able to build  up a rapport, and I knew I was safe with him. I learned that he had a daughter and a son, as well as “one expensive wife” as he put it. His children were in their teens, and his wife worked in the home. They lived in the countryside. He has an apartment in Delhi so that he can work in the city. His wife has no education or job. Things are very simple still in the countryside.

As we drove on, it was very clear that each area and region of the country can differ greatly from one end to the next. Although being from the simple countryside, my driver, Mr. Palakdhari, knew every inch of his route. If the land was changing in value he would let me know. At the site of industry, it would mean that rent has just risen for the residents. Before long we were in between major cities and in the long path of rural India. Cows of course, are a holy site. I asked about the farmers. Unfortunately, their lives are like farmers elsewhere. They cultivate the land, take care of the livestock, and feed the country. The fruits of their labours are exploited at the market place by clever businessmen and they are left to make ends meet…maybe. This has gone on, and will continue for generations.

We came upon one town that had a monorail system above us as we drove under its bridge. It was as if the area tried to modernize itself, but it left the people behind. Also on our route I discovered the first of many toll booths that we would have to pass. I asked if the tolls collected from passengers were used in any way to help the citizens. Although Mr. Palakdhari had limited English skills, his laughing response told me the answer. I asked the same question later on with one of the tour guides. His answer was more positive, but it felt scripted.

Other than the main roads, there really is nothing around in the country areas. That means that if traffic stops, you are stopped indefinitely. Drivers were stopped within their lanes and in between them. Now…all of these people had to somehow turn around in this mess. It was like watching clever tetris pieces; somehow the drivers were careful around each other and we were able to turn and go back (yes, driving in the opposite direction we should have been driving). On-coming traffic slowed and turned with the rest of us. Off to our right, we noticed a car stuck on a shallow median. The car was trying to cross over onto a slip road to try and get around the traffic. My driver got out and guided the others. Their small sedan was just too small to take it. Sizing up the SUV we were in, my driver got back in his seat and took on the median himself. Slowly and carefully we made it onto the slip road and we were again on our way.

“Look madame, see that milk truck? It says ‘milk not for sale’.”
“Why would there be a milk truck with milk that isn’t for sale?”
“I don’t know madame, it makes no sense to me at all! It’s very strange!”

Looking back, I don’t know why this was so funny to me at the time. Perhaps you had to be there. It was as if Mr. Palakdhari, a lifetime citizen of the country had no idea of some of the logic in his own country. For those of you with me in the UAE, I’m sure you can relate to a number of similar examples here. I just had to share this part.

I was looking forward to this walking of the nearby markets in Jaipur as the itinerary suggested. I was met at the hotel with one of the travel agent’s representatives to make sure that my check-in went okay. I was told that I probably had another hour or so of proper daylight to be out of the gates of the hotel area. After that, I was told to be sure that I was in the hotel. After the long drive and traffic from Delhi, I was happy to stay in the hotel, get on wifi, and call home.

“Today, enjoy a full-day sightseeing trip of Jaipur, also known as the “Pink City”. The city of Jaipur is the capital of the state of Rajasthan, famous for its colourful culture, forts, palaces, and lakes. Jaipur owes its name to the founder of the city, warrior king Sawai Jai Singh II. Visit the Amber Fort. The best way to explore the fort is to ride up to in on elephant back. Prominent structures inside the fort are Diwan-i-Aam, adorned with latticed galleries, the Ganesh Pol, with a beautiful printed image of Lord Ganesh, and the stunning Sheesh Mahal, a hall decorated with thousands of tiny mirrors. Later, stop to photograph the beautiful Hawa Mahal, also known as the “Palace of the Winds.” This beautiful fa├žade with its ornately carved latticework was designed so the ladies of the palace could look out onto the streets unobserved. Later you will visit the City Palace…again, a synthesis of Rajasthani and Mughal styles. The museums here showcase rare and ancient manuscripts, arms dating back to the 15th century, and costumes of erstwhile royalty. Later, visit the Jantar Mantar Observatory, comprising of geometric devices for measuring time, and tracking stars in their orbits. Evening at leisure. Overnight in Jaipur.”

Elephant ride? Yes please! The driver picked me up at exactly the time he said he would with my tour guide, Smer. The Amber Fort was a truly magnificent sight to see. I was equally impressed with the knowledge of my tour guide, and the way he would make sure he was close enough but without making me feel uncomfortable, in order to show that I was his client, a signal that kept most of the locals selling souvenirs from hassling me. I appreciated it! The queue was long, but soon I was on the back of the elephant that would take me up to the entrance of the fort. I had never heard of the Amber Fort, and I think it’s one of the most underrated sites to see in Northern India. The fort contains numerous examples of Hindu, Islamic, and Turkish architectural styles. The purpose of this was to keep everyone at the time of its construction happy. If something was constructed in only Hindu architecture, it ran the risk of being destroyed by those of opposing faiths, particularly the Moghuls who were Muslim. My favourite parts of the Amber Fort were the animals embedded in the hand carved architecture, and the palace of the mirrors…thousands of tiny mirrors displaced in splendour. Coming out of the fort, things got very crowded. I asked the tour guide to slow down. He was a quick and tiny person! He reminded me that I was his responsibility and that he wouldn’t lose me. I told him he had an easy job as I’m the one who sticks out, and I lose him quickly!

Getting back into the car, we quickly realized we were going nowhere fast. I had come to India during their holidays, so people from all over were coming to see their nation’s beloved wonders. You had the same traffic with the cars as before, but now you have elephants from the tour, cows, dogs, and goats walking among the traffic. They didn’t seem to mind being in between the cars and among the people, and the humans were being just as patient!

If travelling in India (or I assume in many other parts of the world), your tour guide is going to try hard to take interest and get to know  you. Just be cautious. A few moments after I was asked if I liked to read, I found myself within a bookstore. I said I liked the semiprecious stones of the area, I found myself in front of a jeweler. Don’t be afraid to say no. I was happy, however, to find out in the book I purchased just why in the world the cows insist on remaining among traffic! (1. The cow is a sacred animal, the people of India are not allowed to tie them up; should they do so, they have to repent at all temples throughout the country! 2. The exhaust fumes from the traffic act like a bug repellent 3. The exhaust fumes cause them to get high!!!!) I couldn't wait to give my mother these answers on the next phone call.

That day we saw a few other sites including the “Palace of the Winds” and the Observatory. It was incredible to see their instruments from hundreds of years ago being accurate on the time and position of the planets and their orbits. Afterward, we were to see another palace, however, I was beat. My tourguide seemed to have taken a little offense but I was exhausted from the walking and the heat. I thought it must have been close to 4pm..the day felt long and I was getting hungry. When we got back to the car and I saw it was only 12:30pm! It was time to rest in for the day.

“Today, drive to Agra enroute visit Fatehpur Sikri, which was build by Emperor Akbar and is home to many historical buildings. Akar wanted to make Fatehpur Sikri his headquarters; however, he had to abandon it due to shortage of water. The Tomb of Sheik Salim Chisht 1 enshrines the burial place of the Sufi saint who lived a religious life there. Today, Fatehpur Sikri is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After your sightseeing, proceed to Agra (235 kms/5 hours). On arrival in Agra, check in to your hotel. Later visit the Taj Mahal…a mausoleum built as a symbol of Emperor Shah Jehan’s devotion to his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal. Considered an architectural marvel, its construction took thousands of workers over 21 years to complete. Return to hotel. Overnight in Agra.”

Once again, my driver was right on time. He would take me from Jaipur to Agra, picking up the next tour guide at Fatephur Sikri. On the way, he asked me if I would like to see how they make carpets in the countryside. I was intrigued, of course! The gentleman in the humble building draped with linens to keep the sun’s strong rays out was on his knees on top of a loom, almost unaware of our presence. He was kind, allowed me to take some pictures and showed me his work. I got to feel the material and ask him questions. Although happy to have been there, I realized I was just taken for a shopping trip. I told the driver that I was sorry, but I wasn’t about to purchase a carpet! Neither man was pushy and I thanked them for their time…I was happy to be on the road again.

We pulled over to the side, and before I knew it, my hand was being shaken by the next tour guide from his seat in the front with the driver. We were very close to the gates of Fatephur Sikri. I was about to discover another wonder of this country. The driver let us off at the main area, and then we had to actually take a shuttle into the inner gates as it was restricted to automobiles. We waited in the heat for a little while before the bus had come. The passengers were numerous coming off. I had some space for about a minute after I got on. All spaces were full, people were standing all along the aisle, and a few were hanging from the door rails. Not uncommon.

My tourguide and I made our way into the gates, and he gave me time on my own to wander about. As I began to step away from him, we were approached by a young gentleman with a camera. He had said that his friends had a wager, that he should try to get his picture taken with me. I was flattered and then found it completely humorous when my tour guide had told me that in the Indian culture, they enjoyed having their picture taken with people of different colours. Whether or not that is true, or he just said that to make me feel better, I wasn’t sure. It was going to happen a few more times along the way. I never minded. All my life these people were exotic to me, and now the tables have turned!

After this tour, we were on our way to the main part of Agra so that I could check into my hotel. It was 4:30pm, and they were going to pick me up an hour later. In the meantime, I needed to check in, charge my phone and camera battery, inquire about the wifi, and manage to eat something. Unlike the other hotels, this one didn’t have a ‘coffee shop’. I needed something fast. I asked the representative and she explained that a Costa coffee shop was near the hotel… “just outside the gate, go straight and go left”. As soon as I passed the guard, four rickshaws, some motarized and some not, stopped to ask me where I was going. I suddenly felt very claustrophobic! I changed my mind as I couldn’t think how I was going to cross a road! I quickly ran back to my room and ordered a small pizza from room service. With 2 minutes to spare, I gobbled down what I could, and met the tour guide and driver for the very anticipated Taj Majhal.

From the gold and semi-precious stones to the finely in-scripted Quar’an verses shining in glory, the Taj Mahal mesmerized myself and thousands of other tourists within moments. I was quiet for most of this tour, taking it in. My tour guide thought there may have been something wrong, lol, but I assured him I was just appreciating the moments. Before we left, I was in a few more photos for other tourists. I have to wonder in all of the social media and networking, if I’ll ever see those pictures!

“This morning after breakfast explore the city of Agra. Visit the Red Fort, which was commissioned in 1565 by Akbar. The beautiful yet forbidding structure is a handsome example of Mughal architecture. You will then visit Sikandra, which is also a mausoleum of the great Emperor Akbar. Akbar designed his own mausoleum as a perfect blend of Hindu, Christian, Islamic, Buddist and Jain designs and motifs, in keeping with his religious tolerance and secular views. Later drive to Delhi (203 kms/5 hours) and check in to your hotel. Overnight in Delhi.”

Now, I wouldn’t want to sound bored at this point…but another fort and another mausoleum. Both in the form of palaces like the rest. A few pieces really came together during these tours. From the Red Fort, you can see the majestic Taj. This fort was of particular interest when it came to its protection from enemies. As we walked across the drawbridge, it was explained that down below in the wet mote, there used to be alligators to warn off enemies…that is, if the lions, tigers and bears from the dry mote didn’t get them first. The Wizard of Oz moment made me giggle, but the tourguide didn’t understand the reference. We continued through the gates after the drawbridge (sorry, no portcullis!). I wish that I could have all of my students I’ve ever had through our medieval times unit come through with me. Once inside, we were on quite the grooved incline. I learned the grooves were there for the horses, or else they would slide (something Tara and I learned the hard way in our tour of Petra, Jordan). The steeper slope along the way was again to ward of enemies. Had they gotten through the lions, tigers, bears, and alligators, the guards would be able to see them from the top and roll large stones down on them, Indiana Jones style!

Almost as intriguing as the Taj, the next mausoleum, Sikandra stood in grandeur of it’s unique blend of the marble and sandstone. Designed by himself, Emperor Akbar, a true example of tolerance with all religions, lays peacefully.

Our last stop was an embroidery museum. I was to be shown masterpieces by a man named Shams (Arabic for sun). He was a master of embroidery, that is for certain. The following link is to my favourite piece. It was said that he had a dream of Jesus as a shepherd with a number of sheep around him. Although he was Muslim, his vision was surely that of Christ. The work took about 9 years to complete, and after doing so, he went blind. No patterns, no instructions. Pure work that was only complete when he was satisfied:

We said goodbye to our tour guide. It turned out that he was originally from Jaipur, so we were able to converse about some of the sights that I had seen. He had moved to Agra 5 years prior and loves it so much more as there are more tourists for his business. Soon, Mr. Palakdhari and I were on our way back to Delhi. Considering my first night in Delhi, I was a little nervous to be spending a full day outside with a tour guide.

“This morning after breakfast, proceed for a full day combined city tour of the Old and New Delhi, the modern capital of India. This fascinating city has been in existence since the 6th century BC. Visit Jama Masjid, which is the largest mosque in India, commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan. The courtyard of the mosque can hold about 25,000 worshippers. Enjoy a rickshaw ride in Chandni Chowk, the busiest market in Old Delhi…noisy, chaotic and uniquely Indian. Drive past Red Fort, President House, India Gate and several other government buildings in Edwin Lutyen’s modern Delhi before you head to Rajghat, the memorial to Mahatma Ghandi that marks the spot where he was cremated in 1948. Later visit Humayun’s Tomb, commissioned by Humayun’s wife Hamida Banu Begum in 1562. It was the first garden tomb built in the Indian sub-continent where the Persian architect used red sandstone on a large scale. Evening at leisure, overnight in Delhi.”

OK, I was surprised. This day was my favourite! I was called over the phone by my guide. It was striking to hear a woman’s voice on the line. Today was going to be much different than I had thought. She spoke to me in such a way that she wanted for me to not only know about her city, but to know her city as a woman. She was dressed in Indian cultural wear, but without a bindi. She explained her family circumstance, and unfortunately, although only 25, she was a widow. Widows were forbidden to wear their bindi. Despite her circumstances, she was cheerful and happy to be working with tourists. We did everything on the itinerary and then some.

First, we visited the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. I shuttered as I walked up to the set of stairs leading into the place. Although intrigued by the mosque as all the other monuments, I was getting tired of the monuments. I was looking forward to getting into the markets with the tour guide. The rickshaw ride was noisy, unbalanced, nerve wracking in traffic…but I loved it just the same. We went through the old market place where you could find just about everything on wholesale. Indians and expats alike were walking the streets and going about their business. There were those who were juicing fresh fruit to customers, while others were strapping new HP printers onto the back of a mo-ped. Some businesses had glorious fabrics for sarees, jewelry glistened in the windows of others.

We drove back into New Delhi. If New Delhi was chaotic, Old Delhi was chaotic with no rules or regulations, and no laws enforced! New Dehli suddenly seemed calm. We drove past numerous government buildings, all under tight security as terrorism is a national threat. Down the main road was the India Gate. The driver offered for me to get out and take a proper picture, but when it is very busy, I’m not one to feel comfortable to get out of the car, so I apologize for many of the in-car pictures. I’m not sure why, but I was surprised for a moment when my tourguide told me that the India Gate was actually a WWI memorial with 85,000 names of Indian men inscribed reflecting their service and sacrifice in the Great War. You don’t read about the Indian contribution from our Canadian textbooks. Of course, I quickly realized; as India was a colony of Britain, the country was very active in making their contributions.

The next site had my driver and tour guide shocked and disappointed for it was closed. Neither of them had seen it like this and there didn’t appear to be a reason why. It wasn’t busy so we were able to walk along the gateway and took pictures from outside the property. This was the site of where Mahatma Ghandi was cremated. She had asked if I had heard about him. I may not have heard of the Indian contribution in the Great War, I said. But yes, Ghandi I’ve heard of.

Next we were off to lunch. I had asked her to take me to whichever she recommended. There were the odd American restaurants, but nothing like the UAE. I had requested to eat something local as long as she promised to keep it mildly spicy. She had promised that she would protect me from “Delhi Belly”. The butter naan bread and lentils were still spicy to my taste buds but were delicious just the same. I had a mango lassi drink to help put out the flames (it had the consistency of a smoothie). The restaurant was very modern, very air conditioned, and the staff was very pleasant. I had the leftovers wrapped up. There was another monument to see, but she had an alternative for me. She knew my trip was full of monuments and that I was ready to see something a little bit different. Something that I wanted to become more involved in, rather than be an observer.

She had taken me to the 2 most beautiful places of worship that I had ever seen. If you can imagine what it might be like inside Aladdin’s lamp, you could be close to what it was like to be in the Sikh temple of Delhi. Plush carpet welcomed our washed feet, and our eyes were dazzled by the gold plated walls and the luxurious tapestries along the other walls. A service had just ended, and we were welcomed to sit with the other worshipers as the book of the Gurus was still being read aloud. I was stunned. She took me all around. I knew I stuck out even more than before, but it didn't bother me much. Not only being whiter than anyone there, I was also required to wear a bright orange bandanna. We came around to the outside where water was poured into my hands and we were to drink. The Sikh temple and its congregation not only welcomed me, but also my tour guide. She was also a tourist in their temple as she was Hindu. I quickly took a few pictures of the outside (photography was prohibited on the inside) and we were off to our next stop.

Bright, beautiful, and full of life were the idols and worshipers inside the Hindu Temple. Photography of the idols were forbidden. My camera and phone had to be locked up before entering. They were stunning. Each idol’s significance was explained. I was even welcomed to be adorned with a bindi by a kind man in the middle of the temple.
In one day…I was in a mosque, a Sikh temple, and a Hindu temple. The religious historian in me was very happy. Full from lunch and exhausted from walking, we got back in the car and headed toward the hotel. My driver would then pick me up at 1am late into the night. I had a chance to pack, sleep, and shower before taking off again for Abu Dhabi.

“Today you will be met and assisted by our representative to the International airport to board the flight for your onward destination.”
Another representative met me in the hotel in the early morning after check out and we left for the airport. He was able to stay with me until just before check-in. The airport in Delhi is very large and modern. I was thrilled to find out that the kind lady behind the desk upgraded me to business class but loathed the fact that I was stuck in security for an extra 40 minutes waiting for a baggage tag for my purse (NO other airport has EVER requested a baggage tag for my purse). I was thrilled to find a Starbucks but then 3 people took advantage and cut their way in front of me. I didn’t have the strength to mention anything. Business class made up for it. Although the flight was short, I basked in the glory of being able to recline my seat completely into a bed with a nice comforter and supportive pillows. Breakfast was made fresh and a la carte.

Now back in Abu Dhabi and into the routine of school with my colleagues (students start next week), I am able to enjoy my trip to India in photos and in telling stories more than I was while there. I am no longer worried about being on time for the driver or getting lost in the streets on my own. I can tell people how amazing the sites and sounds were, and how invigorating it was to travel as usual. Especially here in the UAE, where many colleagues are not able to travel on their own…anywhere, I am blessed to be able to continue to enjoy the world. Who might join me next?