India and Bhutan: 10/13/2017 - 10/25/2017

Sunday, 10/15/2017 - Arrival in Delhi, Spending Time in Agra with Mukul and Family

We landed in Delhi at 2:30 a.m. local time. We went through immigration and customs with no problems.

We exited the airport and could see Mukul standing waiting for us! We had told him that he had no obligation to meet us at this ungodly hour, but Mukul is stubborn in the best possible way and insisted. He gave us his patented humungous hugs. We protested that he hadn't needed to come to pick us up in the middle of the night and he responded with his (also patented) "Come on; what are you talking about?!" It was wonderful to see our dear friend after so many miles.

Mukul called Suresh, a driver whom we had traveled with on previous trips. We immediately recognized him and he greeted us with a smile. Suresh led us to the car in the parking garage, and we departed the airport for Agra at 3:45 a.m. Suresh had an icon of Ganesha on the dashboard, so we knew we were in good hands. We had planned to nap on the ride, but we were so excited to catch up with Mukul that we kept snapping awake to chat.

The air quality in Delhi was quite bad. There was a strong chemical odor, and the air choked our lungs. I started to cough, and Mukul was worried that I had caught a cold. But it was really just the pollution assaulting my respiratory system.

This was our fourth time in Delhi, and never had the pollution been this bad. Upon further reflection, this was the worst pollution we had ever experienced. Air quality had been surprisingly good on our two visits to Beijing. We had been very lucky in China, but not so much here in Delhi today.

We had heard about a controversial decision by the Indian government to ban the sale of fireworks in Delhi preparation for Diwali this year. This decision was informed by the fact the previous Diwali, fireworks had contributed to pollution levels 29 times the World Health Organization's standards in the city. We couldn't help but think that this decision was a blessing. The air quality was stifling now, and we couldn't imagine what it would be like after adding tens of thousands of firecrackers into the mix.

The highway brought us through agricultural fields, and as usual it was always interesting to observe vehicles which would never be considered street legal in the USA. The darkness gave way to dawn.

The sunrise was beautiful and we watched the fluorescent orange orb climb into the sky. The highway is very efficient, and there is even a new ring road around Agra which allowed us to get to Mukul's house while avoiding city traffic around the Yamuna River.

We arrived at the house shortly before 7 o'clock in the morning. Mukul's wife Sunita greeted us with a delicious homemade breakfast. She is an amazing cook, preparing delicious Indian specialties. She watches while we eat, and replenishes food on our plates as soon as we eat it.

We were thrilled to learn that Sunita would be joining us for our visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar at the tail end of the trip. We had always hoped that Sunita would be able to travel with us sometime, but circumstances had never allowed it. This was a very nice surprise.

After breakfast, we took a much-needed rest in "Jagdishji's room." This is a guest suite on the second floor with private bath which is occupied by Mukul's dear friend Jagdishji whenever he is in town. We had stayed in this room during our last visit, and they had renovated the bathroom since then.

The room was quite comfortable. It was warm outside, but the overhead fan kept the air moving. We feel asleep, and woke up refreshed at 3:30 p.m. Sunita had prepared a lovely lunch for us (hours ago!), and we finally came downstairs to eat it. We got to see Mukul and Sunita's son Sukumar as he headed off to work.

Soon Sukumar's wife Sonam (not to be confused with Sonam Tshering in Bhutan!) and their daughter Sara returned home. Sara just turned three years old, and she has grown very tall since our last visit. She is precocious and playful. She calls us Stephie Auntie and Craig Uncle

She and Sonam painted the flagstones of the patio for Diwali, and Sunita lit a prayer lamp outside. Sara then came in to chat and play with us. She pretended to be a demoness and came at us with her arms wide to scare us. She is very expressive (especially with her large dark eyes) and I think that she would make a great Kathakali performer (except that she's female...)

Mukul told her that the last time we were here she burned her hand in cooking oil on the stove (luckily she had not been seriously hurt). She said that she was little then and didn't know any better. She showed us that she is a big girl now and puts her toys away in the toy cabinet. She sang "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Baa Baa Black Sheep," and counted to ten, all in English. Then she served apples like a polite little hostess.

Sara was so excited when we understood what she was saying in English that she told Mukul in Hindi that next time we are here, she'll be bigger and will know more English. It was hard to believe based on her behavior and intellect that she had only turned three years old a month prior!

Sara likes pandas, and has several stuffed animal pandas. We showed her the video from our time volunteering at a panda research center in China. She was mesmerized, and we noticed that she was acting out all of the gestures that the pandas made in the video. When HaHa the panda rolled around on the floor, she rolled around on the couch. She pretended to hold food out for the pandas to eat.

When the video was over, she asked to watch it again. Mukul scolded her for not paying attention the last time, laying on the couch instead. She was quick to defend herself and point out that she was actually miming what the pandas were doing, and she was very much paying attention. It was adorable! She watched the video repeatedly, enraptured by it.

Sara ate her dinner at her child-sized desk in the family room, and then headed off to bed.

We had a light dinner (featuring homemade tomato soup, paneer, and Indian ice cream) and then went to bed early.

It is so nice to be here with the family. Their house is a relaxing oasis in which to recover from jet lag. They are such dear friends and it is wonderful to reconnect with them!

Reunited with Mukul at the airport

Reunited with Mukul at the airport

Driving toward the sunrise with Ganesha as our copilot

Driving toward the sunrise with Ganesha as our copilot

Mukul and Sunita

Mukul and Sunita

Fun with Sara

Fun with Sara

Sonam and Sara painting Diwali decorations

Sonam and Sara painting Diwali decorations

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