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Letter from India: Jaipur to Mumbai

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Street scene in Jaipur

By Marc Kristal

On the road to Jaipur, we pass people in huts by the roadside, surrounded by skinny farm animals; inhabited ruins resembling the aftermath of an aerial bombardment; entrepreneurs giving haircuts or selling drinks, chips and chewing tobacco out of corrugated tin boxes on stilts; camels pulling carts loaded with bags of cement, goats clogging the roads, motorcycles zooming through clouds of red dust. When we get stuck in traffic, people come up offering rugs and beads for sale, or simply bang on the windows, palms out, eyes beseeching.

“The real India,” Bhowani says. As we drive, he narrates, pointing out the dhats – stairs leading down to a river – where villagers go to wash, gossip and look for mates, and the Banjaras, Indian gypsies who go from place to place, weaving baskets, doing ironwork, or else busking (the women dancing, the men charming snakes). Bhowani tells us about the BPL (“below poverty line”) card, which guarantees food or money from the government as long as you work; he explains that the women of the desert state of Rajasthan (literally, “land of kings”) wear bright colors because the landscape is monochrome, that many Indians can not get out of poverty because, by tradition, they must pay a great deal for weddings and even more for deaths, that the bud and the leaf make the best quality tea. Mostly mute, entirely mesmerized, we listen, look, and learn.

Jaipur's famous pink architecture

 

Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, is unique: the brainchild of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, its 16-kilometer historic center, dating from 1727, is India’s first planned city, an axial, nine-block arrangement notable for its broad boulevards, unusual observatory, and delightful Hindu architecture (painted a terra cotta pink in 1876 to celebrate a visit from the Prince of Wales). The Oberoi Rajvilas, accordingly, draws on the Rajput style – to a fault: the hotel is a perfect replica – only much bigger – of Naila Fort, the roughly 150-year-old walled fortress that Oberoi Group head P.R.S. “Biki” Oberoi converted into his personal retreat some years ago.

The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur

 

Interestingly, the hotel was designed by the same team that created the Amarvilas – the Mumbai firm P.G. Patki Architects, H.L. Lim, a Singapore interior design office, and the Bangkok-based landscape architect William Bensley – and, as at the Amarvilas, craft is king: the gold-leaf wall murals, vegetable dye frescoes, and superbly detailed brass-and-wood doors embed the public spaces with a palpable sense of authenticity, as do such elements as the traditional lime plaster finish on the exterior walls. The design also incorporates two preexisting structures into the plan: an 18th-century Hindu temple and, directly opposite it, beyond the 70-foot-long pool, a former haveli (mansion) of comparable vintage, which houses the hotel’s spa and fitness center.

The Rajvilas proves also to be a land of abundance: with 32 acres of grounds, the hotel offers 54 guest rooms, arranged in small clusters around traditional central courtyards with fountains, fourteen luxurious tents (identical, we are amused to discover, to the ones at Ranthambhore) that, says front office manager Vikas Sawney, “are our most popular room type with honeymooners,” and three villas with private pools and gardens. And while the Amarvilas feels more like a posh way station on a grand tour, the Rajvilas is a destination unto itself, with visitors that spend seven to ten nights enjoying the resort-style amenities and practicing yoga and meditation. Though the hotel arranges sightseeing tours, says Sawhney, “these guests have seen the city and never go out.”

Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur

Last stop, Mumbai

We, however, do go out, and onward, and after a magical night at the Oberoi Udaivilas, a palace-like hotel on the shores of Lake Pichola in Udaipur – not only a place of great and romantic beauty, but one of the world’s most desirable honeymoon spots – we arrive at our final destination: Kipling’s “Mother of Cities,” Mumbai.

“Whatever is created must be destroyed to be born again,” explains our local A&K guide as we tour the caves of Elephanta Island in Mumbai’s harbor, which contain a Hindu temple, carved from a single rock between the 5th and 7th centuries. The same, sadly, might be said of the Oberoi hotel here, which came under terrorist attack in November of 2008. The modern atrium-style hotel on Marine Drive (like South Beach in Miami, a protected Art Deco district), with panoramic views of the Arabian Sea and Mumbai’s skyline, has been completely redesigned; it exudes an air of utter peace, exemplified by the live jazz, played on a red grand piano in the lobby, that sends soothing echoes throughout the vast interior space (only the heavy security at the door reminds one of the property’s unhappy recent history).

The lobby of the Oberoi, Mumbai

That peace proves beneficial, because Mumbai (“everyone still calls it Bombay,” says our droll guide) represents urban life in extremis: here, Mukesh Ambani’s 27-story, billion-dollar home – the most expensive single-family residence in recorded history – overlooks slums so dense and vast that they resemble a kind of ground cover; and every manner of human experience seems to lie between the two. As our tour bus navigates the tumultuous streets, we receive a recitation of arresting statistics: During rush hour, a train pulls into one of the city’s stations every 45 seconds, each loaded with 5000 passengers (three times its capacity), for a total of six million people in two hours. Fifty-two thousand taxis and 100,000 rickshaws roam the streets. Three thousand new cars arrive in Mumbai every day, as do 300 new families. Even Bollywood – which produces three movies a day, an output that would have given night sweats to Louis B. Mayer – is not exempt from frenzy.

Yet as we embrace Bhowani, thank him for his knowledge, perseverance and good humor, and at long last depart for home, the statistic I find most emblematic – not only of Mumbai, but the entire subcontinent – is the 200,000 hot lunches delivered every workday, by the 5000 so-called dabba wallah, to office workers from their homes. Daily, these extraordinary men collect lunch boxes called tiffins from all around the city and – traveling by bicycle, train, and on foot – show up precisely at lunch time, then collect and return them, all by mid-afternoon. Not only have the dabba wallahs been studied at business schools for their punctuality, they make fewer than one mistake in every six to eight million lunches delivered – and earn $80 a month for their efforts.

In Joseph Heller’s 1979 novel Good as Gold, the protagonist wonders how his illiterate, penniless grandmother could have made it from the old country to the new world on her own, when he – wealthy, successful, respected – can’t go from one American city to another without a travel agent. Something akin to this has been scratching at the back of my mind since my arrival, via first-class transit, in India. The country has taught me two things. The first is that, when it comes to survival, people find a way, often with imagination, energy and grace. The other is an old lesson, but seldom so indelibly delivered: Westerner, count thy blessings.

For more information, visit Abercrombie & Kent

 

Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.

Letter from India: Delhi, New and Old

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Old Delhi. Photo by Marc Kristal.

By Marc Kristal

Toward the end of my 17-hour Lufthansa flight to Delhi last April, an explosion of cheering rolled through the plane. Over the course of the trip, the pilot, in German-accented English, had been delivering updates on the India-Sri Lanka World Cup cricket final, made comic by the fact that he did not understand the game – “I hope some of you know what that means, as I certainly have no idea” was his sniffiest crack. Now, apparently, the pilot had announced victory; when we finally touched down, not only the passengers, but all of India, remained celebratory.

It was a good start to what promised to be a singular voyage: a collaboration between the luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent and India’s Oberoi Hotel Group. The former has, since 1962, been crafting small-group, specially-designed tours of some of the world’s more exceptional destinations, and had developed a bespoke itinerary – tailored to the interests of myself and my traveling companions – overseen by a guide who would remain with us for the entire ten-day, six-city trip. Oberoi, meanwhile, would handle the ultra-luxury accommodations. Begun in 1934 by Mohan Singh Oberoi, the presiding figure of India’s hotel industry, the family-operated company has eleven business and leisure hotels in the country, many reflecting their local histories and aesthetic influences, all recognized for their high level of service.

I confess to being as in the dark regarding the ways of cricket as our pilot. But as, departing customs, we are met by representatives of both organizations – seemingly delighted to see us, despite it being after 1 AM – and taken to the comfortably appointed minibus that would serve as our trip’s chariot, I remain perfectly clear about finding myself in excellent hands.

Oberoi Gurgaon. Photo by Marc Kristal.

 

Delhi, New and Old

Half an hour later, we arrive at the Oberoi Gurgaon and receive, the lateness of the hour notwithstanding, an exceedingly thorough welcome: several beautifully attired, gracious women greet us; one dabs a bindi on my forehead (“for luck, strength and health,” she explains), another offers a most towel, a third serves fruit drinks. This is followed by a very complete overview of the hotel’s layout from the night manager, after which another staff member leads me to my quarters, which she explains comprehensively. (This entire process will be repeated, virtually without variation, at every Oberoi we visit.)

The big news is that we are not, in fact, in Delhi but rather Gurgaon, which is just outside it and is, in effect, a new city. A generation ago it was a farming village with little in the way of construction or population. Around that time – realizing that land outside the capital was eventually going to become valuable – a group of businessmen, with the government’s assistance, began buying out the farmers and having their land re-zoned. Who precisely got wealthy, in India’s famously corrupt government, off this is hard to say, but the gamble paid off: Gurgaon is now a center of business and commerce – innumerable call centers, plus the preferred place for international companies to set up operations – and one of the wealthiest enclaves in the country.

With all of that money focused in a relatively small area, the Oberoi people created a hotel that is effectively a world of its own, one catering to the luxury tourist market, business people, and local residents looking for places to dine and shop. The complex is a rectangle nestled in a man-made forest, its built features surrounding a dazzlingly blue, 36,000-square-foot reflecting pool; the 202 rooms are contained in a somewhat pre-Columbian-looking volume, which faces an ivy-covered, 50,000-square-foot retail arcade across the water; these two are joined by what the hotel calls the “Jewel Box,” a glass-and-steel structure containing the lobby, restaurant, and meeting spaces, notable for the colossal scale of the public rooms and the blinding sunlight bouncing off the marble surfaces within (by day, the lobby requires Ray-Bans). It is a monumental compound, devoted to the things most people in India, I am to discover, don’t have – quiet, space, and water.

A detail from Lutyens President's House.

In the lobby the following morning, we are met by Bhowani Singh, the A&K representative who will be with us for the entire journey, a dapper gentleman with the large, melancholy, bloodshot eyes of a Bassett hound. Once ensconced in our minibus, we take off for Delhi, and Bhowani and a second A&K guide – a local specialist, which the tour company provides at every destination – explain that, like Washington, D.C., it is “a state unto itself”; indeed, the new city, which the British made India’s capital in 1911 and was master-planned by the classical architect Edwin Lutyens, shows the orderly layout and elegant Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture of a great colonial outpost. I am surprised by the broad streets lined with gracefully shaggy acacia and tamarind trees, very well looked-after, and find it hard to believe, admiring the magnificent Rajpath (“Kings Way”), anchored at one end by Lutyens’ 1929 President’s House and the monumental India Gate at the other, that this is the sprawling dystopia (population: 18 million) of legend.

Jama Masid. Photo by Marc Kristal

Our arrival in Old Delhi, just within the sandstone walls of Emperor Shah Jahan’s Red Fort, corrects my impression. In a ten-minute bicycle rickshaw ride along the tumultuous commercial lanes, overhung with vinelike tangles of electrical wire, off Chandni Chowk, the main street of the district, I am exposed to more visual, auditory, olfactory, social, cultural, architectural, urbanistic, historical, and sheer human information than I typically receive in a year; moments later, climbing the long steps of the 17th-century Jama Masjid, India’s biggest and best-known mosque, surrounded by beggars clutching woebegone infants, I am still struggling to process the hallucinatory blur through which I’ve just driven.

Half an hour later, exiting the holy calm of the mosque into a nonstop racket of car horns, the unshakable press of peddlers, and people, people, people, I think: This is India.

 

 

Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.

The Interview: Geoffrey Kent, A&K

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Geoffrey Kent

It’s easy to believe that Abercrombie & Kent founder Geoffrey Kent was minted to play the part of the world’s leading  luxury tour operator. Born while his parents were on safari and raised in Kenya, he set off at 16 to become the first person to travel the 5,000 miles between Kenya and Cape Town by motorcycle. He later grew A&K, the company that he co-founded with his parents in 1962, from a safari company to the leading tour operator for high end adventures, taking the likes of  Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Sting on memorable trips. Kent is a former British Army officer, a world class polo player and pal of Prince Charles – not to mention a brilliant marketer. There is no Mr. Abercrombie, but it got him in the “A” in alphabetical rankings, while also referencing Abercrombie & Fitch, the venerable 19th century American travel outfitter (not the teen clothier). I met Geoffrey Kent a few month ago in New York City, in a penthouse at the Essex House hotel, where the views of a snowy Central Park inspired him to talk about his new found passion for skiing.

Geoffrey, what were the beginnings of A&K?

My family lived on a farm in the Aberdare Highlands of Kenya and growing up there, my whole life was a safari. In fact I was born while my parents, Colonel John and Valerie Kent, were on safari in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). I basically lived in the bush until I was 16. We had always organized safaris for friends and it grew into a business when we lost our farm on Kenya’s self-governance in 1962.

What was your background – what did you bring to the table in terms of expertise?

At 16 I fell out with my father and impulsively left on a two-month trek by motorbike, driving the 5,000 often-treacherous miles between Nairobi and Cape Town. When I returned, he packed me off to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England. I became a cavalry officer in the British Army and served in such far-flung places as Aden, South Yemen and Malta. It is the British Army’s training in organization and logistics that has made Abercrombie & Kent a success.

How would you characterize the A&K approach to adventure travel – and how does it differ from the competition?

Adventure by day, comfort by night. We earned that reputation by being the first to introduce refrigeration to our safaris. Prior to that, all safaris were hunting safaris to provide food for the guests. With help from a engineer I knew from the military, I designed a refrigerated truck which made it possible to keep food fresh for a week…and have ice for the gin and tonic and chilled champagne. Our slogan when we launched these first luxury photographic tent safaris was “shoot with the camera, not with the gun”.

How about your travelers – who are they, what are they like, how experienced are they in roaming the world?
Our guests are educated, active, accomplished professionals and entrepreneurs with an intense curiosity about the world. They have widely travelled, but have limited time and want someone else to handle all the details.

When we met in New York, you mentioned that people value experiences more than possessions. Since A&K’s travelers presumably have more than a few possessions, tell me more about what you mean.

While many people who travel are thrilled to simply be in a foreign country, our guests seek a deeper knowledge and appreciation, an experience of a more profound nature that expands their understanding of the world. They want to travel with intelligent, like-minded people who share a passion for meaningful travel and with highly-experienced and cultured A&K guides, who share their insights into the countries they are visiting. We call it A&K insider access … “experiences you cannot Google”.

At that New York meeting, you also mentioned the idea that for many people, travel is non-negotiable. Could you expand on that.
Everyone is thinking about life in a much more careful way now, but our clients will cut back in other areas before postponing their vacations. They work hard and need to get away to recharge and reconnect. Travel is often the most uninterrupted time they spend together as a family, particularly when both partners work.

How is adventure travel changing, in an increasingly frenetic world dealing with recession worries and lack of free time?
Time has become the ultimate luxury. Our clients are making more frequent trips but of shorter duration. Next year we are offering 67 different small group escorted journeys that are 10 days or less. Experiences like gorilla trekking in Uganda which were once added to a 10-day safari are now in many cases a standalone trip.

Any new destinations for A&K this coming year?

Americans are drawn to the ancient countries of the Middle East, rich in Biblical archeology and described in both the old and new testaments. More Americans will visit Egypt this year than ever before (350,000 according to Egyptian Tourism). Requests for Israel, Syria and Lebanon are setting records, inspired by books and television programs like “Walking the Bible.”

Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Here one can easily imagine what life was like in the Middle Ages by walking through the souks of old Damascus and Aleppo, dating back to the second millennium BS when this was the end of the Silk Road which linked central Asia and Mesopotamia.

Our clients are also fascinated by traditional cultures like the Tuareg, the nomadic desert dwellers found in Mali, a country rarely visited by Westerners. Its proud people — including the Dogon, Bozo and Fulani tribes — have maintained their beliefs and traditions in the face of the modern world.

Those returning to China for a second or third time often want to explore remote regions like Diqing, in far southwestern Yunnan, which inspired the legend of Shangri-la. To the south lies Burma, and to the west, Tibet. The appeal of this region is its breathtaking Himalayan scenery and authentic Tibetan culture.

What places remain on your personal travel wish list?

My current favorite is Zambia. If you’ve only seen animals from a vehicle, walking with big game is a thrilling experience. I love places where you can be active, like the Galapagos … hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, even scuba diving. I prefer tented camps where you can hear the sounds of the night like Sanctuary Zambezi Kulefu Camp. Built on a bend in the river, it overlooks an open channel filled with hippos. Elephants often cross right in front of the camp to reach a small island.

When you’re not working, where do you find your center of gravity?
I am always working. However, I do like to ski at Christmas and when skiing you certainly require a center of gravity!

Visit Abercrombie & Kent for details on 2011 trips.

A&K Extreme Adventures

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Smart Deals: Save $1,350 with A&K in the Galapagos

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THE DEAL:Save $1,350 per person on select 2010 Abercrombie & Kent’s departures aboard MV Eclipse in the Galapagos. Read the full story

Travel in 2010

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What’s ahead for travel in 2010? Longer security lines and jittery fliers, for sure. But five travel experts looked beyond those concerns and deep into their crystal balls.

Kathy Dragon, Founder and Chief Curator at TravelDragon.com

Curators will rule: too much noise, too much information, and too many people talking becomes increasingly overwhelming.  In order to make decisions people will rely on people/sites they trust in the travel space (and in all decision making). Blogs, travel bloggers, twitter leaders and niche vertical sites will gain exposure and influence as they turn down the volume. Social Media will be a game changer.  Tour providers will invest in developing and implementing social media strategies. Those who embrace, interact, listen and share will see significant changes in customer retention, referral bookings, and resolution/customer satisfaction. Facebook will lead the consumer interaction, twitter will lead the pr, mobile devices will lead content sharing. Get Satisfaction and TripAdvisor will continue to navigate reviews and resolution.

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Gifts for Those With Wanderlust

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After this difficult year, it's a safe bet that everyone needs some cheer during the holidays. Here are a five suggestions to bring much needed smiles to the travelers on your list …

Read


GIVE BACK

There are hundreds of charitable organizations that aim to benefit people in the developing world. One of the best that I've come across is READ Global, which has built 57 libraries in rural communities in Nepal, India and Bhutan. Founded by Dr. Antonia Neubauer, who also started Myths & Mountains (one of National Geographic Adventure Magazine’s Best Adventure Companies on Earth), READ partners for-profit business enterprises with non-profit Community Library and Resource Centers. I visited a half dozen of these libraries in Nepal last spring and can testify to their ambition and success. It's remarkable work in some of the most remote villages and towns in the world. To learn more or to donate, in your name or someone else’s, visit READ.

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GIVE ITALY

There’s no question that Dream of Italy newsletter is the single best resource for Italy-bound travelers and for those who can’t get enough of La Dolce Vita. It’s published 10 times yearly but right now, there’s a 2-FOR-1 Dream of Italy Subscription Sale going on. Here’s the deal: buy one subscription with a bonus DVD “Visions of Italy” included and receive an online subscription with bonus DVD “Visions of Italy” for free, a $79 value. You’ll also get immediate online access to over 70 back issues, those 10 full-color issues delivered online or by mail this coming year, and a  free one-year online subscription with free DVD to give to someone else. Visit Dream of Italy for details.

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