When I first joined Princess Cruises many years ago, I never imagined I would have the opportunity to visit some of the world’s most exciting destinations as part of my job. I joined the company as an agent in the Air Department and over time worked my way into a management position. It was during a time when I held responsibility for our pre- and post-cruise hotel programs that I really expanded my horizons.
I always dreamed of visiting renowned cities such as Venice, Barcelona, Sydney and Tokyo, but honestly, India was never on my list of must-see places. So, in 1992 when I was asked to go to India to help develop our new hotel programs there, I was a bit wary—and was certainly not expecting I would return with a life-long love of the country and its people.
My journey into India began in the capital city of New Delhi. When we stepped off the plane I was put at ease by the friendly greeting and the warm smiling faces of our guides who would be with us for the next five days. We instantly plunged into the life of the city as we traveled through the heavy traffic to our downtown hotel. It struck me as we were driving that what at first appeared to be gridlock actually was more like a well-orchestrated dance with cars, trucks, motorcycles, people and cows all moving in rhythm together, respectful of each other’s space. It was an amazing sight, and when we would stop, young street vendors would crowd the car selling beaded trinkets, scarves and brass boxes. I couldn’t resist and bought a small brass box engraved with an owl with blue lapis lazuli eyes. Today that box sits on my desk at work, a constant reminder of my adventures through India.
New Delhi is a city of contrasts. The juxtaposition of temples, tombs and colonial architecture alongside modern buildings of glass and steel makes a drive through the city a sight to behold. In the walled heart of the city, Old Delhi, we visited the ornate Red Fort, a huge complex that dates back to the 1600s.
Another significant spot on our itinerary was the memorial site of Mahatma Gandhi, the Raj Ghat. It’s a very simple platform of black marble that I was told signifies the simple and pure life led by Gandhi. This visit turned out to be a very moving experience for me and I found myself with a deeper appreciation of the Hindu religion.
Next we headed south to Jaipur by rail. The train station was full of people—it made for pretty exciting people-watching. The train itself was surprisingly comfortable and watching the Indian countryside fly by was fun, but also quite eye-opening to see the local trains in the stations and along the route with people riding on the roofs and the tightly packed cars. It really made me think about the vast differences in this intriguing culture.
In Jaipur we settled into a hotel that had once actually been a palace—the Raj Mahal. The ornate building was so beautiful and I was very excited to say I slept in a palace built for a queen. Not to mention I was following many renowned past guests such as Queen Elizabeth II and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Our first stop in Jaipur, known as the Pink City, was at the Hawa Mahal or “Palace of Winds,” a striking pinkish-red building with small grated windows along the street. It was built so the ladies of the royal household (yes, the harem) could sit and watch processions through the city and daily life on the street below.
Next we traveled to the Amber Fort located on a hill outside Jaipur. Getting up the hill was a surprise when we were presented with our transportation—a large Asian elephant! It was quite a ride as we swayed on our perch while the mighty animal made its way up the steep hill. The fort is built of white marble and sandstone and took more than two centuries to complete. Since it was a fort, I wasn’t expecting the elegant paintings and intricate carving decorating the walls and ceilings with small mirror inlays to make the rooms sparkle.
Both of these cities were astounding, but it was the next drive, from Jaipur to Agra, where I really fell in love with India. While driving along a desolate stretch of open road, something in the distance caught my eye. As we got closer I realized it was a woman, dressed in a beautiful gold-and-red sari, as if she were ready to go to an elegant event. But instead, she was digging a ditch on the side of the road. It struck me as odd and beautiful and I will never forget it. Plus there was the anticipation of finally seeing the Taj Mahal, which sits just south of Agra.
The Taj Mahal is something most of us have seen in pictures, but not until you stand beside it and look closely at its intricate detail and massive size do you truly appreciate the beauty of this monument of love. It was built in memoriam to the third, and favorite, wife of Shah Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of their 14th child.
This mausoleum sits near the banks of the Yamuna River and is surrounded by raised gardens and the rather famous reflecting pool. It’s actually a full complex of structures that took approximately 20 years to build in the 1600s, but the stunning white marble mausoleum is, of course, the landmark that’s so recognizable as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
To me, the beauty of the Taj Mahal was in the detail. Everywhere I looked I saw dramatically intricate touches: carvings, inlays and semiprecious gemstones. I couldn’t help but be amazed by the grandeur of the site. I found myself thinking about the incredible effort it took to build such a structure purely out of love. I later read that it may have taken more than 1,000 elephants to bring in construction materials from all over India and Asia, including marble, crystal, jade, turquoise, sapphire and lapis lazuli.
The Taj Mahal was built in traditional Islamic style, which reminded me of the fascinating number of religions in India. I had studied Asian religions in college and later, when I married, I chose a non-traditional ceremony performed by a Swami in golden robes. I obviously have a connection to these religions, so I was intrigued throughout my visit to see the variety of faiths living side by side here: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and so many more.
By the time I returned from India my outlook had turned from one of little interest in, or knowledge about, India to one of recognizing just how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to visit even just a part of this fascinating place. In the years since, I’ve found myself turning again and again to India—I haven’t had the chance to return (although I’d jump at it), but I have continued to read books and study various Indian topics. But most importantly, I think my journey in India has made me appreciate the differences in all people and how we all have so much to learn from each other.