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India is a very exotic and vast country of major contrasts, and too few Americans explore its unique characteristics or discover its fascinating culture and history.

After several recommendations, I decided to travel here on a trip sponsored by Overseas Adventure Travel of Grand Circle Travel, and experienced a culture unlike any I have seen on my worldwide travels. I was enchanted by this land of mystery with an ancient heritage and with a civilization that has endured for thousands of years. It will soon pass China as the most populated country in the world.

While I have visited many poor countries in Central and South America, Asia and Africa, I have never been more overwhelmed by the poverty I witnessed. Around 10 million children live on its streets. Its commerce is conducted from homemade stalls and "soup" kitchens on its streets and sidewalks. I saw people sleeping in the dirt along the road. Few highrises are seen in its cities. I never saw a mall. Young children sweep the sidewalks with straw brooms and others pick up trash in large bags. There are so many people feel like they are living in a human anthill.

In stark contrast, however, I have never visited any country were the people are kinder, happier or more contented. Everyone I encountered smiled, greeted me in English and expressed interest and friendship.

The traffic is the most congested I have seen in the world and drivers, mostly on motorcycles or three wheel taxis, are very aggressive, yet I never saw any road rage and any driver would let someone cut in front of him. People in the poorest circumstances, such as a young girl picking up trash, would stop and smile when they saw a camera around my neck. No one ever objected to my taking their picture. Their culture seems to give them a sense of peace and kindness. They are a gentle people.

Not to be overlooked, nevertheless, are the splendid places to see in this country. The Taj Mahal is a magnificent palace. Like the Pyramids, you may have seen it in several pictures, but unless you see it in person you will not fully recognize its splendor. It is truly one of the wonders of the world.

No experience I had on this trip equaled watching the thousands of Hindu pilgrims who crowd the banks of the Ganges River daily at sunrise and sunset, as they have for thousands of years, in a peaceful and reverent display of an ancient rituals as they take dips and offer prayers. It is an awesome example of their culture.

Delhi, its capital, is one of the most populated cities in the world. It has preserved sites dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, its spiritual founding father. As a special treat, watched the colorful and dramatic Changing of the Guards at the Presidential Palace. We also explored a 12th Century world heritage site that included a tower marking the trail east.

Jaipur, the second prominent city we visited, is called the "pink city" for the rosy hue of its sandstone buildings. It is a walled city featuring two well preserved royal palaces, a Hindu temple, and an astronomical observatory. One of the palaces had elephants on parade.

Another visit was to Ranthambore National Park and Fort. It is a Tiger preserve and conservation park, but on two long safari drives we were only able to see one Tiger from a distance. Monkeys roamed its Fort. We also spent one night living in a tent, and enjoyed native dancers around a campfire.

A magnificent group of ninth and 10th Century Hindu temples in central India was another destination. This complex has been recognized as a world heritage site.

India is a huge and heavily populated country with unique characteristics, memorable sights, friendly people and unusual experiences. As I noted above, it is a country of vivid contrasts between its immense poverty and benign population. It is a discovery and learning trip unlike any I have seen or experienced in any previous country or culture I have explored.

See a photo spread of Pattison’s impressions on page B6-7 of this issue, and watch for an online gallery at marcoislandflorida.com

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