Shortly after arriving in India, I joined Ira on a business trip to Pune. To travel to Pune, we needed to take an hour and a half flight from Bangalore. Pune is approximately 150 kilometers from Mumbai. During the week, I was cloistered in the gated corporate campus which was in a remote location. I had not yet developed the confidence to travel by myself. I read, walked around the campus, and went swimming in a frigid pool.
During our second weekend in Pune, Ira’s colleagues arranged for a private tour. On Sunday, our driver took us into the country. Cows shared the road with auto rickshaws, carts, trucks, and cars. We also observed women washing their clothes in a lake. In my memoir, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life, I share some of the highlights from our day trip.
We sat back and relaxed while our driver, a tall, thin, white-uniformed man in his early thirties, drove us to Sinhagad, a 300-year-old fortress located approximately twenty-five kilometers south of Pune. The driver, Anil, a product of the Indian public school system, took the initiative to improve his English by conversing with his foreign passengers. We became his new teachers as we traversed the countryside and visited Pune’s highlights on Saturday and Sunday.
Along the way, Anil stopped at a roadside vendor and bartered for red grapes wrapped in newspaper. We were apprehensive about the elongated grapes, which Anil sprinkled with bottled water; normally, I scalded all of the fruit I purchased from food vendors and stores. While Ira and I munched on this sweet delight, I remembered our youngest son, Jordan, upchucking on the cruise ship after he ate strawberries provided by our private tour guide while visiting the Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. I wondered if I was tempting fate. Fortunately, this time we didn’t have any problems, which only made it easier to rationalize the next time when I questioned whether I should eat a forbidden fruit.
After parking, we hiked uphill with our driver, now layered in a black leather jacket, to an eventual height of 1,350 meters. Splotches of manure were everywhere and the manmade steps were steep and irregularly spaced. A pack of donkeys and a few stray cows were our companions, along with Indian families and couples who were intent on hiking and picnicking. Most of the Sinhagad fortress had been destroyed over time, so our memories and photographs are of bits and pieces. Our guide had little knowledge about the significance of this historical site.
After leaving Sinhagad, we took an alternate route through farmland and small villages. The traffic slowed on a stretch of road where young women were using sledgehammers to break apart large rocks. I swallowed hard as I watched these construction workers swinging away repeatedly as the sun beat down on their muscular bodies. Farther down the road, another crew of women sat on the ground hitting rocks together to make gravel for a new road that was being built parallel to the existing one.
We made one stop in a small village where the residents lived in tents and makeshift structures with pieces of metal or cloth for roofs. Satellite dishes prominently adorned each apex. Inside one of these primitive structures, an older man squatted on the ground making tools. In an adjacent area, other men were taking an afternoon respite from the heat. Cell phones were ubiquitous, despite the poor living conditions.
Our travel to Pune made me eager to learn more about India. I was becoming more open to exploring different parts of India even though I still harbored concerns about traveling solo. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I ended up flying back to Bangalore by myself.