Iris E. Holliday has contributed to Life Untapped before, to share her journey into a fulfilling season of retirement after a lengthy career in corporate philanthropy. She returns this week to share a heartwarming essay about achieving her lifelong dream of visiting India. Settle in and enjoy this bird’s eye view of her adventurous spirit as a solo traveler….
My fascination with India began in the living room of the Holliday home in Washington, D.C. My father and I began what would become our monthly ritual-filling out the “for more information” cards in magazines, circling numbers for destinations, products and such. This began my lifelong addiction to mail, starting with the first mail addressed to Miss Iris E. Holliday from the Embassy of India, and one from the Embassy of Morocco. There were so many stamps on these large manila envelopes.
Of course, my 8-year old self proclaimed that I would travel to India and ride on an elephant. And quite a few decades later…I recently did.
The India of this child was images of princes and princesses, majestic palaces, statues of mythical gods, home to Gandhi and the sacred river Ganges, and people clothed in silks reposing on their heavily adorned furniture. Such is the fantasy of childhood.
The India I saw as an adult in my travels to the Golden Triangle-Delhi, Agra and Jaipur- screamed of complexity, beauty, contradition, conflict, passion and intensity.
My body of historical knowledge was woefully inadequate to receive the jaw-dropping architectural marvels of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (called UP everywhere I went); some now UNESCO sites.
India is a moving color wheel-people, clothing, food, flowers, transportation, and art. It is also dramatic as joy and sadness come in high octaves. The sheer number of people occupying the public spaces with you brings a dazzling affirmation of humanity in fast forward motion.
Anyone who really knows me acknowledges my obsession with preparedness, so reading a dozen or more books on travel to India would come as no surprise. I also confess to being a fan of Bollywood movies and Punjabi music, all tastes cultivated way before the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I credit award-winning filmmaker Mira Nair and her movie Salaam Bombay for further piquing my interest. After all, I have carried the dream of traveling to India for 57 years.
Each airport has its own Zen, especially after 9 p.m., and Dulles and Frankfort are at opposite ends of the spectrum to me. The snowstorm I encountered in New York on the first leg of my trip posed some interesting flight challenges. However, there was no problem hitting 10,000 steps as I traversed the gates en route to a new carrier and flight time, and in desperation, not wanting to raid my rather large snack stash, I got a tuna melt. Oh God, why? Awful, inedible.
The time was made tolerable and rather entertaining by a brief encounter with a Duke University MBA student on his way to India for the first time. Our chat was so lively about technology and art and Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama that I forgave him for dissing my iPhone SE. He had an iPhone X. Yep, tech matters and in all things shallow and cultural, tech is a distinct marker of status, intelligence or hipness.
On this direct flight to Delhi, I heard voices more audible in different languages, predominantly Hindi, as the time zone changed. I also noticed the sea of orange, lemon yellow, ruby red and fuchsia turbans reflecting the Sikh faith of my fellow passengers. Time to tackle the large print Word Search on Plants and Flowers scored at the Dollar Tree. Not one to miss out on free movies, I viewed The Greatest Showman and really disagreed with the move critics who panned the film. I downloaded the soundtrack as the flight info screen showed “7 hours and 5 minutes to Delhi.”
On the movie roll, I discovered a two-part epic Indian movie Baahubali – the sixth largest grossing Indian film worldwide. Watching both parts would absorb nearly five hours. No popcorn, but that was okay.
It wasn’t hard to settle in, wrap up in my pashmina, and position the pillows. This fantastical movie had handsome stars, romance, and political intrigue with powerful, immoral rulers, bromance, martial arts, religion, kingdoms on mountains beneath blue skies with billowy clouds. I loved the descriptions of the hero of the film: “His strides are like the wind…Even death does not scare him…He is like a bright shining star…an immovable mountain.” Oops, forgot to mention the music. Yes, there is singing and tattoos.
The now-quiet flight of the sleep deprived is inching to Delhi over Ankara, Kabul, Doha, Dushanbe and Ahmadabad. In less than two hours, I will be there, after eating a way too spicy “chicken puff” and reflecting on this engrossing movie.
Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport is truly magnificent, more like one gigantic hotel lobby. It is 2:00 a.m. As one of the sleep deprived, it is truly funny when you are looking for the right Immigration and Custom’s counter and realize that you are now the foreign passport holder with a visa.
Candidly, I don’t remember all the details of the early morning hours except the spacious hotel room and the note to meet my driver and tour guide at 9 a.m. Oh, I do remember being greeted with “Namaste” and responding in kind.
The beauty of solo travel is travel without negotiation, compromise or resignation.
Established around the time of my birth, the collection shows 5,000 years of Indian history through arts and crafts. The sculptures both wood and bronze and stone, textiles, miniature paintings in a range of styles, terracotta pieces captured my interest for hours. I lurked in the “jewellery” gallery lusting after several eye-popping gemstone pieces; didn’t know that diamonds have been mined in India for over 3,000 years.
Museum visitors are intriguing, and it thoroughly surprised me to meet students on field trips. These students (who appeared to be ages 12-16) were not guided through the galleries as is the norm, but were self-guided based on interests. Hip-hop culture is global and their fashions were the latest sneakers and strategically torn/ripped jeans. Some of the students wore hijabs and still dressed in Gen X wear. They enthusiastically agreed to pose for pictures. Smiles are still part of the universal language. Not a huge fan of audio-guides, I am glad that I used it in this museum.
Old Delhi offered the Red Fort and the India Gate, the homage to Indians who fought in World War I, and modeled after the Arch du Triumph in Paris. The much anticipated visit to the Jama Masjid, one of the largest in Asia, welcomed all, however only Muslims were allowed in the actual mosque prayer area. With shoes off, men and women entered separately and the security was highly visible. Those who did not respect the site enough to wear appropriate dress were given long covering robes to wear. The sun was blazing and I am so glad that there were long runners leading from the entrance to the interior. One step on the brick pathway meant scorched feet.
With all the people I crossed paths with, what are the chances to see again, a Muslim woman I had encountered in a different part of the city. With that recognition, we exchanged greetings and mental hugs. Truly a serendipitous moment.
The UNESCO World Heritage sites of Qutub Minar and the tomb of the Emperor Humayun left me in want of more details of Mughal architecture. Named after a Sufi saint, Qutub Minar is a minaret on the Qutub complex that stands 239.5 feet tall with 5 tapering towers. Construction began in 1192, and each of its columns are of a different stone-pale red sandstone, marble, marble and sandstone and are engraved with texts from the Holy Quran and decorative features. It is alleged to have been inspired by the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan and built by Hindu artisans.
The Emperor’s tomb has the distinction of being the first garden tomb in India. Commissioned by his first wife, the Mughal Emperor Humayun’s resting place is a solemn garden now filled with tombs of his descendents. The Persian-influenced architecture and gardens divided by walkways or flowing water intentionally reflects the view of paradise described in the Holy Quran. I found it hard to focus on this site as a tomb because of its astonishing beauty and serenity.
The streets of Delhi require bravery to navigate, with the mode of transportation being either foot or rickshaw, tuk tuk or car, bicycle or motorcycle – doesn’t matter. Not one to be skittish about close encounters, I exercised deliberate calm in the car as a passenger, and certainly in the rickshaw. The proximity of one rickshaw rider to another in a separate rickshaw was hands distance, and the narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk redefined the word narrow. There was constant conversation with other drivers and vendors. The horns of vehicles never stopped and continued all through the day and night.
The rickshaw ride is also an opportune time to talk about Old and New Delhi, education, the gossip on Salman Khan (film idol), and preservation. I was struck by children, very young children, who were selling loose peacock feathers and a fan made of peacock feathers. Of course, they should be in school; however school is mandatory from ages 6-14 but not heavily enforceable. And to the issue of peacock feathers, it is illegal to sell these; they are banned like ivory for commercial or retail sale.
It’s time for my dinner and the night lights illuminate Delhi’s sky, and even on the fifth floor, I can hear the incessant sound of honking. I am craving a bowl of dal, with yellow lentils and garlic naan. Soon, my appetite was satiated by the best dal on the planet and the most attentive food manager and wait staff at the Radisson Blu. The open kitchen afforded the view of chef creating elaborate dishes and it was a wonder to see my soup being blended, spiced and adorned based on my preferences. It was as if there were no glass wall between the chef and I. The night was capped by my first cup of masala chai.
This would be my beverage for the start of the day and the ending. With cows being sacred, did I even ask what type of milk was used in making the chai?
Nope, I just savored it. The question would be asked and answered at another time.
Iris E. Holliday is a third generation Washingtonian (Washington D.C.), a Cruzan (St. Croix) and Hoosier (Indiana), and both a Howard University University Bison and VCU Ram. During a career spanning more than 35 years, she advanced the reputations of government entities, corporations and nonprofits, including serving as Director of Corporate Philanthropy and Community Partnerships with Dominion before retiring in 2016. A recent graduate in museum studies, she looks forward to traveling to other dream destinations and sharing her excursions with Life Untapped readers.