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October 27, 2013 at 1:00 AM

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Impressions of India


ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A woman sews in the rural village of Mehdiganj in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Villagers still sew garments by hand or loom, despite the rise of machine-made silk products.


Last November, reporter Melissa Allison and I left Seattle for India to work on several stories for The Seattle Times. It was our first time to the country we've longed to visit for years.

Pacific Northwest Magazine featured part of Melissa's travel diary in this Sunday's edition. You can read the story, "India, one day at a time."

When trying to describe experiences in India, it was difficult to make sweeping generalizations. We visited four different states in the North and South, each with its own languages, religions, food and landscapes.

It was an unforgettable, incredible opportunity. Of the countries I've visited, I have yet to meet hosts matching their level of hospitability or grace. For most of our trip, Melissa and I were enchanted. But we realized, too, that India is a country of many dichotomies.

I can offer a few examples.

India is ancient and rich with 5,000 years of culture, yet modern and cosmopolitan in cities like Mumbai or New Delhi. The nation includes the extremely rich, extremely poor and a burgeoning middle class. On a short plane ride, you can ascend through Mumbai's thick air pollution, and then marvel at the clarity of Himalayas a few hours away.

While working on stories, we met families who talked on iPhones and listened to Tom Petty, and others who lived without electricity and running water. While on vacation, I witnessed religious pilgrims giving offerings of flowers to Hindu gods on the Ganges. A few steps later, I walked past men suffering from leprosy and a woman with acid burns on her face.

Sometimes the lines, bureaucracy, crowds and traffic were overwhelming. At other times, the food, people, and landscapes were so beautiful we frequently drafted emails aloud to an editor back in Seattle. ("Dear Jim, we're writing to let you know that we have established the West Bengal Bureau of The Seattle Times.")

At the end of our trip, exhausted after weeks of work, I yearned for clean water and the security of America I often take for granted. I wasn't sure if or when I would go back. And, it took me almost a month to process all that I saw and readapt to life in Seattle.

But, almost a year later, after looking back through the images and notes— I'm thinking about a return a trip.

Despite it's growing pains, I'm optimistic about India's rise as a world power and progress as a nation.

I'm remembering the parents who weren't able to go to school, so proud of their daughters' grades. I'm recalling incredible conversations with 20-somethings impassioned about democracy and social progress. I'm remembering how it felt to be in a place that -- around almost every corner -- took my breath away.

I would recommend the trip to anyone. It can be life changing. Just do it with a great traveling partner (someone who can laugh and quickly adapt) and find locals who can help educate and guide you along the journey.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and also an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Across from the teeming, ancient metropolis, young boys mingle around their horses.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Narrow alleyways connect the oldest sections of Varanasi. Each turn reveals hole-in-the-wall restaurants, such as this one, as well as ancient shrines, ashrams, pushy trinket vendors, fortunetellers and meandering cows. The northern part of the city is thousands of years old, while the southern end is just a few hundred.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Around 88 ghats, or steps, lead to the Ganges River in Varanasi. Two of the ghats serve as human cremation areas, while others are used for a wide variety of activities, including for religious offerings, selling goods, bathing and doing laundry (above).

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Crimson henna decorates the feet of a young person in rural Uttar Pradesh.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Sunrise boat rides are available for tourists and religious pilgrims on the Ganges River in Varanasi. The business can be competitive, so tourists should expect multiple approaches a day. Finding a knowledgeable guide, such as "Nandan" Upadhyay, can provide important context for this complex and culturally rich city.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Long before sunrise, vendors sell flowers in Mumbai's Dadar flower market. The market, located under an overpass, sells blossoms for decorative and religious purposes.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Tea workers head into the fields at Balanoor Plantations Murgadhi division in Karnataka, India. Workers pluck tea by hand and with shears, then place the leaves in the bag that is slung on the head with a strap.Tea needs to be harvested every 18 days. Due to labor shortages, the company can only do it every 22 days.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Men leave the entryway of an outdoor wedding in southern Mumbai. The city serves as the financial and entertainment capitol of the country.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Children pray before eating lunch at Balanoor Government Higher Primary School, built by the coffee and tea plantation in the 1990s for workers' children. The government pays for school salaries and other expenses.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Vendors sell metal wares at the Cooch Behar Ras Mela in northern West Bengal. The outdoor fair draws huge crowds from the region.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Although India can be difficult to travel through at times, the beauty and vibrancy of the country are undeniable. A roadside cafe provides simple, painterly scene.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Gopal Chandra Barman, center in red, washes with a group of men and boys near the rural village of Nakarkhana 2 in West Bengal, India.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Workers thresh rice in the fields in rural West Bengal, India.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A barber works a shaving stand in rural Uttar Pradesh. The northern state is the fourth-largest in India, spanning a little larger than the size of England.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Bulbuli Barman, mother of three, is a life-long agricultural worker in rural West Bengal. She uses a "kulo," or narrow basket, to separate the straw from rice grains.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Women carry firewood near Jaldapara National Park in West Bengal, in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. The park provides protected habitat for Indian one-horned rhinoceros, elephants, Royal Bengal tigers and a variety of other species.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Although Mumbai is chic and cosmopolitan, the megalopolis also can be crowded and gritty. Men stare through barred windows near the city's red-light district.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Vendors sell milk on the streets of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A man rides a baby elephant near Jaldapara National Park in West Bengal, in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Hindu pilgrims gather for a religious ritual on the banks of the Ganges River during sunrise, the most important time of day to worship, according to local guide Raghvendra "Nandan" Upadhyay.

ERIKA SCHULTZ/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

A cow rests outside of a shopping center in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Shanti Kungor lights an offering, known as a puja, to the goddess Kali inside her home at dusk. At sunset women from around the village can be heard ululating at their home alters to the widely revered Hindu deity.

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