“Hey Al, what do you think of this?”
I looked up from the enormous pile of intricately designed camel leather shoes. My dad was sporting a large colorful turban and laughing to himself.
“Are you really buying that?” I said.
“Oh, I already did. The guy was wearing it so I know it’s really great. It makes me look like the Maharishi.”
“You mean Maharaja.”
Traveling in India with parents is one part hilarious adventure and one part I-am-an-adult-so-I-must-not-get-frustrated-or-embarrassed-by-my-relations.
They arrived on a Thursday night after I had stood nervously at the outdoor arrivals area waiting for them. I knew I couldn’t miss them in the sea of Indian faces – especially my mom’s shock of blond hair. I waited and waited, nervous that they would get lost or go the wrong way. Daniel kept laughing at me and reminding me that they had survived their entire lives; they could make their way out of an airport. But this was India and this was foreign to them and I wanted more than anything for them to love it here as much as I do.
When I saw them I ran out, excitedly. They were fine – and as ready to embrace India as I was.
Their first days in Mumbai I tried to warn them about everything- don’t brush your teeth with tap water; don’t eat that tomato until it’s been cooked; no ice; wash your hands; look the other way when you’re crossing. Every time they would just remind me that they were only eating things I gave them and that they were following me, so I shouldn’t worry.
The funniest thing is that once again their biggest problem was with me: while buying my mom a kurta in Bandra’s winding stalls on Linking Road my dad stopped me mid-haggle.
“You’re arguing over $2! You’re being rude to a grown man!”
“It’s not being rude- it’s just how business is done here! He offers me a price, I counter with something much, much lower, then we argue, we both say we’re insulted, I begin to walk away, he offers me a new price, I counter. Trust me, Indians haggle much more than I’m haggling now.”
But everywhere we went it disturbed them that their little girl was always wary, always ready to argue over a price or a bill. I’m so used to it now that I don’t even notice. But they certainly did.
They were, however, much happier with Mumbai than they were with my haggling. They loved the gothic architecture of South Mumbai. They were amused by the plethora of Indian tourists wanting pictures with them at the Gateway of India – villagers who wanted to show they’d seen a real-live white person. They marveled at the fishermen as they cut off fish heads and re-tied their bright blue nets. They listened intently as our guide explained the dobi ghats, the vast outdoor laundry business. My mom chatted up our tour guide at every stop trying to understand each complexity of this new place she was in.
All my fears about India overwhelming them were unfounded. They took in every sight, asked every question and continuously seemed amazed by the beauty amidst the chaos. I was really proud that they were enjoying ‘my’ city so much.
But the trip must continue and so off we went to Rajasthan – the capital of tourist India but the place that inspires so many dreams of Maharaja’s forts and palaces towering over cities and colorful saris against a desert backdrop.
We started in Jodhpur and the Mehrangarh fort there took my breath away – I’ve purposely stayed away from every place I was visiting with my parents so I could be as surprised as they were. And this truly was stunning- 400 feet up a steep hill and very well preserved. It was built in the 16th century and when you walked up the ramparts into the fortressed walls, you felt like you were stepping into another time. We wandered around, listening to a particularly engrossing audio guide, and enjoyed the scene. I also enjoyed watching as my dad sat down to ‘learn’ sitar with a musician, decided to take pictures in a funny maharaja photo booth and put on the aforementioned turban. For all my attempts to be a non-tourist, it was hard to resist watching.
The hijinks continued as we made our way to Jaipur. We stood in line for an elephant ride up to the Amber Fort and I was finally vindicated – after warning everyone, once again, that being polite would only make all the sellers think you were willing to buy something, my dad politely declined a painting a man was trying to sell him. For the next 20 minutes the man whispered in his ears, tapped on his shoulders, lowered his price and generally berated my dad. When he asked for help I just reminded him that my brand of helping would be construed by him as ‘rude’. When the guy followed him up the ramparts even as they were on the elephant I couldn’t stop laughing – the polite tourists finally gave way to realistic understanding of the new culture (although, just to make it stop, my dad did buy the painting).
It’s wonderful seeing India through fresh eyes and it’s really a treat to see the majesty that Rajasthan has to offer. Tonight we drive to Agra and tomorrow morning at sunrise we’ll be greeted by India’s greatest treasure- the Taj Mahal.