A TOUGH COOKIE
Food-wise, my worries had been for naught. Even with the need for a couple of Pepto-Bismols, Mom proved tougher than most of the backpackers I'd traveled with. Sticking to a vegetarian diet -- easy to do in India -- Mom developed a taste for the local cuisine. Lentil soup, vegetable cutlets, masala dosas (enormous, crispy crepes stuffed with potatoes and peas) and fresh lime sodas became our staples.
What she couldn't handle were the aggressive hawkers. As we emerged from the Taj Mahal or waited for our elephant ride below Jaipur's Amber Fort, packs of insistent touts pressed in on us with satchels full of wooden chess sets, silver bracelets and mirrored sandals, onyx eggs and marble trivets. They surrounded Mom, tugging at her sleeves. "Hello . . . you buy . . . 50 rupees . . . OK, 20 rupees . . . yes, yes, 10 rupees. . . ."
My mother cowered, waving her arms as if besieged by gnats. "I can't stand this!" she'd cry, trying to find an escape route. I'd take her arm and lead her to the safety of our car.
As she rolled up the windows despite the furious heat, I asked: "How could a woman who directed a day-care center for welfare mothers, surrounded all day by screaming kids, be intimidated by a few guys selling postcards and trinkets? Why were the kids any easier to handle?"
"I was bigger than they were," she replied.
Such aggression was not a problem in Udaipur. The relaxed city -- with its labyrinthine palaces, painting galleries and tradition of independence -- is a portal onto Rajasthan's past. Posh restaurants serve Mughal curries, and festooned boats ply the romantic lake.
Among Mom's few complaints was that there had been little natural charm in the places we visited. "The beauty in India," she said, "is all in the culture, the history, the monuments."
I hoped Udaipur would demonstrate otherwise.
We arrived at the Fateh Prakash Palace hotel and found a table at the outdoor restaurant. It was a sultry afternoon, and we surveyed the view over Lake Pichola -- with the Taj Lake Palace Hotel resting on its surface like a mirage.
"Well, this is lovely," Mom said as we munched on pakoras and sipped Kingfisher beers. A sitar and tabla duet played an afternoon raga. "It's good to finally see some natural beauty."
I kept silent, loath to remind her that the lake was artificial -- but she was a step ahead of me. "At least the mountains are natural," she said.
The next morning, we visited Nagda, a nearby temple complex built in the 10th century. It was an unexpected gem, surrounded by flowers and trees. The ancient Hindu shrines were covered inside and out with exquisite marble carvings. Here, again, was a place where natural and cultural beauty worked together. It put my mother in an expansive mood.
Before leaving, we stopped at a table where an artist was selling small, modernistic statues of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of auspicious beginnings. Mom purchased one.
Idol-worship is forbidden in Judaism. But Indian gods and goddesses are so colorful and compelling that Jewish travelers in Asia often succumb to the "Golden Calf syndrome." But my mother?
"Amazing," I said. "I never thought I'd see you, of all people, buying a graven image!"
She shrugged. "I won't pray to this. It's just a fanciful, mythological creature. A souvenir, not a manifestation of God."
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