Wednesday, May 7, 2008


I apologize for the sub-par title to this post, I am absolutely exhausted right now, physically and mentally, and for the life of me can't think of anything witty...

Throughout our travels we've met some people that have been here before. And all their stories have been off-beat colorful tales of their trials and tribulations in this beautiful yet mentally taxing country. And when you listen to these stories you nod your head, smile, and think to yourself, "well, how difficult can it be?"

Well, listening to the stories and being a part of them are two totally different experiences.

Before arriving in India we had heard it all, "don't drink the water", "people are always hassling you", "people are everywhere", "watch what you eat","we got dysentery and had to be hospitalized"," the water in the Ganges at Varanasi has over 2000 times the toxins of normal swim able water", "be careful with your money", and so on and so forth. Like I said, we had an idea of what we were getting ourselves into, but it still wasn't enough.

We arrived into Dehli at somewhat of an odd hour, 2:00 am. The previous day we had booked a guest house in the main bazaar of New Dehli and had arranged airport pickup. Upon arrival, many of the taxi drivers will drive tourists not to the hotel they have designated, but instead after a lengthy ruse, saying the hotel is overbooked, they will drive to a hotel where they receive a commission based on the number of tourists they drop off. Now you see why we opted for the airport pickup... Haggling with a taxi driver at 3:00 am after almost 22 hours of traveling was not something we were looking forward to.

And luckily everything went according to plan... so far so good. Our driver drove us right to the streets of the deserted (at the time) Main Bazaar, while dodging cows, dogs, piles of smoldering garbage, auto-rickshaws, and a few people here and there. Our hotel wasn't exactly off Main Baazar, but instead down a side street. It was here on this side street we passed a man defecating in the alley while curiously looking at us. Well, we're here!

As I read over these past couple of paragraphs I feel as though I'm painting a slightly negative picture of our experiences here. We have had nothing short of a good time, seen some amazing places, and met some of the friendliest people in the world. However, in our last 3 months of travel we have never experienced a culture like this. It is completely different from everything we have known, and of course with all things new and different, it takes time to adjust.

I can personally say that my first day of Delhi was a dizzying and surreal experience that paved the way for the rest of the trip. Stepping out of the front door of the hotel, my senses were immediately overwhelmed, women in saris briskly walking by, motorcyclists weaving in and out of people, blaring maniacal horns, men pulling carts filled with vegetables, people shouting, dust being kicked up and unintentionally inhaled, the pungent odor of garbage, urine (human, dog, cow, goat, and the occasional camel and elephant), exotic foods and spices and exhaust, and of course a desert-like intense dry heat (luckily we timed our visit with the dry season).
For 5 hours I explored New Dehli and Old Dehli, returning back to the hotel with a bleary eyed look upon my face and some much needed sleep. Day 2, After some mild sightseeing Will and I decided it would be in our best interest of time to hire a car and driver to visit Pushkar, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra, and Varanasi, the first three within the beautiful state of Rajasthan. The following day we awoke early and by 7:30 we were in a car with our driver Surresh, on our way to Pushkar.

After 6 hours in the car listening to a limited variety of Surresh's Indian music selection, we arrived in Pushkar. Known as one of the holiest cities of India. Here they have the only Brahma temple in the whole country. And Hindi's travel from around the world just to visit and pray here. It's a small city situated around a lake literally in a desert valley. People bathe within its holy waters from the ghats (steps that lead down to the water's edge). Because the sanctity of the city it is against the law to consume alcohol and non-veg food (meat, chicken, eggs, etc...)And because we traveled west, it got hotter and hotter. Here we ate some great veg meals (R.S. restaurant if anyone's interested), hiked to a hilltop temple and observed the prayer services in the temple and down at the ghats. These few activities took up only a fraction of our 2 days there. The majority of our time was spent sitting in the shade trying to avoid the extreme heat of the season. In the hottest part of the day it would reach about 110 degrees. Water consumption was essential, we averaged about 8 liters a day.
A city of about 2.6 million people, it is home to the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort. An immense structure that was built to defend the city from any looming attack. It is also known as "The Blue City" because many of its residential buildings are painted indigo, a cooling color in the warmer months, and a natural insect repellent during the rainy season. We also were fortunate enough to arrive during Mango season! After a short trip to the market we were devouring a kilo of the juiciest most delicious mangoes I've ever tasted!
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan. Its a large metropolitan city, but also has its fair share of historical forts, temples, and palaces. We visited Amber Fort, Jal Mahal- the floating palace, and the Galta Temple... also known as the Monkey Temple (did you know they like to swim?)

"Whoa, did you see that wild pig eating the carcass of that dead dog!?"

...Within the car, 1 hour outside of Agra...

So here we were, the city of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, the single most reason why so many people visit this wonderful country. Simply put, the Taj Mahal is amazing, beautiful, an architectural and aesthetic masterpiece, and emotionally moving. Similar to how I felt at Machu Pichu, it was all very surreal. A piece of history I had read about since I was in grade school, and now having the opportunity to experience it in real life. Will and I made sure we arrived at the gate right at 6:00 am to be one of the first through the gate. We watched the sun come up over the trees and see it majestically reflect off the 500 year old, yet remarkably pristine white marble. Although filled with many tourists roaming the site, I still could find a shady secluded space just to sit and admire this wonderful building. I could go on and on with facts about the Taj, but instead, I will again refer to wikipedia...
In Agra we said our good-bye's to Surresh and boarded a night train to Varanasi.

The night train as it turned out went perfect according to plan. Our car was air-conditioned, the beds weren't double-booked, and it was relatively quiet for the 13 hour train ride... we didn't know how well we had it until taking the night train out of Varanasi back to Dehli... more on that later. Much to our surprise Varanasi wasn't as "intense" as we had heard. Perhaps the over-exaggerated stories came from over exaggerated travellers wishing to make their trip seem that much more exciting? Varanasi was built along the river banks of the Ganges, a highly polluted, yet extremely holy river to the people. It is here where people go to die, to die in Varanasi concludes your eternal death and reincarnation. While the sick come here to die and be cremated, the healthy come here to bath in the holy waters as well. Leading down to the river are the ghats, steps that lead directly to the water. The entire city has a multitude of ghats including one dedicated to cremating the bodies of the dead. The process is simple: A fire is built and started. Wood comes at price, with different grades of wood fetching a different price. The body wrapped in colorful veils is carried down to the water and submerged and prayers are said. By this time the fire is now large enough to handle burning the body. The body is then carried out of the water and placed in the open fire and cremated. This takes place all day, and anyone walking along the ghats can stop and observe the practice... very different with western approaches to saying good-bye to the deceased.
In addition, those opt not to have their loved-one's cremated on the ghat, instead just float them, down the river, paying their respects as they slowly float a way from sight. Keep in mind this is all happening while other's are bathing in the river.
With that said, Varanasi is also a place that is very beautiful. I've seen few cities with its same unique positioning with the river. The river's edge clearly defines its border. It brings life to the entire city, not just because of its holiness, but also as regular body of water. They use it for recreational swimming, fishing, and even the cows saunter down in the mid-afternoon sun to plunge their over-heated bodies in the cooling waters. The city's majority of roads are tiny, 5-7ft. wide; have unexpected surprises with each angular turn, and are always an excuse to explore and see what's just around that next corner. Varanasi of course has its main roads as well. Similar to other cities in Inda, they're an over-congestion of chaos with motorbikes, rick-shaws, cars, pedestrians, animals, and carts going each and every way. Lanes and direction hardly dictate flow of traffic. It was nice to spend time in Varanasi, but as with the other cities of India we've visited, it also takes its toll on any traveller.
The night train back to Delhi was interesting albeit frustrating. Our tickets were wait listed, but that problem was remedied, or so we thought. We each purchased a separate bed in the sleeper train only to find out after we had boarded we shared a single bed (used as a seat) with other people (not too fun for a 13 hour train ride). After much confusion talking with other passengers, the conductor (i use this title loosely), a stow-away (the heart of the problem) and a myriad of other people who thought it their business to add their own thoughts on the situation, we finally worked it all out. Each of us found an empty bed. However, the dozen (literally) of small children screaming and the many other passengers having loud in-depth conversations made it slightly difficult to fall asleep.

Now back in Dehli its funny looking back on our brief time spent in this country. To say the least it was an experience. Was it negative? Absolutely not. Differences in culture can make you feel very uncomfortable and take time to adjust; if at all possible. It puts everything else that much into greater perspective.

"A stint in India will beat the
restlessness out
of any living creature"
-Yann Martel, Life of Pi


Geoff said...

Wow, great post. It looks like you got the full experience there.

Sweet Pain said...

Nice post on your experience in India. You've only covered the Northern part of India. Next time you make it here, try the south. Specially Kerala, Bangalore, Coorg, Chennai & Hyderabad.