After 38 hours of traveling, touching down in 5 different countries, and about 4-5 hours of sleep, I arrived to India completely exhausted and not much for wits about me. Within ten minutes I realized my first mistake: non-preparation. There was supposed to be someone from the hotel there waiting for me with my name on a card. I saw no such card, hadn’t written down my hotel info (doh), didn’t have a phone or access to internet, and a help stand search was futile. I attempted to ask a few people questions and was quickly reminded I wasn’t in Australia anymore! I took a deep breath and made a round again and phewwww, there was my name! Breakdown averted!
Made it to the hotel, a simple but cute place; no toilet paper, but they had wifi!! Going on not sure what, I had enough steam to make a lovely and much needed Skype call home, then crashed within seconds after closing the computer.
My first venture out the next morning was an overload of the scenes. Incessant car horn honking. Some smells of yummy indian food, but mostly of trash and urine. I knew to expect it, but the dirt and pollution were most shocking to me, literally trash everywhere and at times mountains of it. I know there are more developed areas here, but where we stayed, the sights were mostly of poverty and chaos. Just about everything, from traffic to businesses to road work and construction sites, appears to have none, or slim-at-best regulation. It’s a mixed emotion experience for me, enjoying the new, but with mostly sad emotions: sympathy, pity, disbelief, even shame at my own discomfort. It doesn’t seem quite real. I am so curious about this place and these people... and they to me! I walked around like a cat in a dog pound; not feeling threatened, but most certainly noticed. Guess my blue eyes and blondy hair doesn't help to blend me in. ;)
Before I’d arrived I’d put out an inquiry on couchsurfers and had 15 responses within a few hours. Unlike my discomfort with a similar response in Sydney (all men replies), here it became quite obvious that Indians are very curious about foreigners, and seems would almost appreciate my stay as much as I would!
After a gorge of a breakfast, I set out to find the metro. I had no cell yet, so my new friend Nishant and I pre-planned to meet at a place called Rajiv Chowk, there’d be a cafe there. (Im discovering the pronunciation, accents and letter arrangements so different, I have trouble even catching that something is a name, let alone what it is! ) Thank goodness for Dilip!!! I met him on the metro; he was 40 something, maybe 50, and of all things an interpreter!! We got along splendid and when he asked where I was going my lack of Hindi was clear. He was getting off at my stop and offered to walk with me. The cafe was no where to be found, so Dilip called Nishant for me.... about 4 times over the next 40 minutes. Im not sure how we used to get along without cellphones. haa. Turns out the cafe was inside the metro station, so Dilip purchased me another token in. Then he set out the coins I didn't realize I needed for the bathroom (no tp again!). I was adamant that I buy him a tea in thanks, and he was even more adamant that I was his guest and I would do no such thing. He stayed with me the whole time. He was only going to repair his wife’s shoes so no rush :). We talked life and he taught me some basic Hindi phrases (Namaste: hello. Apa kaisē haiṁ, or to me- 'Ab Kay Say Hey': How are you. Shukriya: Thank you. I’ve put all to gooood use so far!). Finally Nishant arrived, I thanked Dilip for the 49th time, and off he went. A perfectly wonderful stranger- ahhh, I love angels. :).
Nishant and I got acquainted, connecting over our love of adventure. He’s actually writing a book on the subject! He thought I’d like Qutub Minar, the tallest minaret in India, built in the 12th century, and I did. It’s a whole complex of ancient structures and ruins. For being 800 years old it was in pretty good shape! I loved the columns and the details in the stone were so intricate. Since then I’ve got to see people making such carvings and engravings--- It can’t be done much differently even this much time later. Tiny chisels and lots of patience. It’s incredible really and worth WAY more than than they charge for such things! Im dying to know but fearing finding out how much one earns per day here :(.
The entry fee was interesting, something one would think would be more discreetly implemented, but displayed gregariously: Indians- 10 rupees, Foreigners: 250 rupees. Wowza... quite a markup! When I first got off the metro, I was told 400 rupees for the ride.... Nishant walked up, mentioned his status, and it became 40! And the way back we only paid 10! This will become the standard here in India;/. In a way I don’t mind. We quite honestly earn more money, and to pay only the Indian rate of 10 rupees, equivalent to about .25 cents, would have been a sham on my part.
|Tallest minaret in India! 237.8 feet!|
|Check out this column! 800 years of still standing... Im impressed!|
We said our goodbyes after that as I wanted to get home before dark. I didn’t, but it wasn’t bad. I'm a confident gal but know I shouldn't be wondering around too much after dark. I did venture out again to get food, my comfort level quickly easing in once I knew the way. I found a shop with things on display, bought some of those, and a tasty looking pastry off a street vendor for 6 rupees (For comparison: 48 rupees= 1 dollar). Back at the hotel, it turned out my display purchases were all desserts; My inner sweet tooth must have subconsciously known ;) Yummy nutritious dinner!
Then Robyn arrived!! I drove with the hotel driver to the airport at 1am to pick her up. We were both exhausted but stayed up until after 3am catching up. Robyn and I have been friends for almost 10 years now, and among many amazing traits, one thing that stands out most about her: she’s up for anything. Not many would be willing, or want, to make this trip to India. We’ve got a good balance going on, where I’m overly confident and she’s overly cautious. What a blessing to not only have a good friend with me, but right at the start of a new chapter, a very foreign and different culture, so we can ease into it together. She’s been a gift to me for many a reason :).
We woke and stuffed ourselves, which ended up being a blessing in disguise since we weren’t able to eat again. Our task was simple enough: to get to Rishikesh, but it was far from simple!!! We were told the buses were here, just go there, you’ll find one there... Some people we understood, some we didn’t. Some we trusted, some we didn’t. In the end though, with the language barrier, you have to just trust and hope for the best! We found ourselves out in the middle of who knows where, at a bustling bus terminal, not-a-one other foreigner, staring down a 7 hour state bus ride, and no other options! Here we were getting major stare downs!!! Luckily we found a english speaking local, originally Brazilian but from LA, that confirmed we had the right bus. The ride was unique, and in the backseat a rodeo ride, but was special for me. Definitely as the locals do, which I do enjoy. We only had daylight for a few hours, but I had my head out the window for most of it. It really gave an idea of real India. If this country had to be boiled down to one word, it would be Contrast. Disturbingly poverish and polluted, but special moments of beauty and joy: kids playing, an old man praying, a field of flowers or an out of place temple. Maybe they are in place actually, to give such glimpses of beauty here and there in mostly unsightly views. I watched the sunset; It was beautiful, albeit ‘foggy’, and then a few smokestacks came into view, spewing loads of black pollution. It was like a perfect analogy for what I’d seen of India so far.
We didn't arrive until close to 11pm, but Abram, the Brazilian, walked with us about 2km to find a hotel. Again, strangers= angels!!
|This is India. Repeat scene over and over, add more chaos!|
|Thats a river... of trash :(|
|Evil smokestack :(|
|Happy baby!!! :)|
So there we are in Rishikesh, conveniently during International Yoga Festival week. Makes sense that it’s here, since this city is pretty much the spiritual/holistic/yoga capitol of the world. Ashrams everywhere. Alcohol and meat forbidden. Holy cows all over the place.
Our new friend Abram got us into the Yoga festival for free, where we had a splendid lunch, and then we gave thanks we hadn’t paid the $60 for the day pass as we weren’t very impressed with the actual festival, and politely excused ourselves. We took a typical yoga class with a little old Indian man that could contort every which way, and as an added bonus, during the yoga he was simultaneously giving another class on peace and love and happiness and health. Pretty awesome. He had a huge white beard, was balding just on top, and fit the picture of yogi perfectly. We shopped and reveled at how ridiculous it was to negotiate pricing, knowing we’re getting ripped off on something but still only paying $1 for it. We bought and made ‘wishes’ in the river, got bindis (the forehead dot) and blessings on our heads and fed cows just so we could give the woman selling its food money. I watched a fire and song ceremony by the orphans at one of the Ashrams. We cursed our heavy packs and got massages to make up for them. We walked about in the streets, which are full of holy cows, dogs, monkeys, bikes, rickshaws and peddlers, taking pics as discreetly as possible. Once we tried to take a pic of some cute little grade school kids, and they shouted ‘No Picture!’ Oops, busted!
|Monkeys and temples everywhere in Rishikesh|
|What's that monkey chewing on ? Of course, a condom! Accckk!|
|Holy cow doesn't eat too well :(|
|We loved her. She blessed us. We tipped her 500% ;)|
|Before they started shouting, "No picture! No Picture!"|
|The Ganges and Rishikesh! Sweet view from our $12 room!|
|Yoga with an ultimate yogi! Swamy Krishna.. he rocked!|
|Namaste at 5am!|
Next we took a bus just north for a Himalayan outdoor experience, a camping and white water rafting trip in the holy Ganges!!! (the pollution you’ve prob heard of happens much lower in it’s stream, after all the cities dump into it). The bus ride up along the river and mountains was beautiful, a much needed reprise from the prior days journey and emotional turmoil. We arrived early at a beach camp to super cute, homey tents, and 45 people... all of which were native Indians, except us! Most of them were well-to-do professionals from Delhi, so they all spoke english. English is def the second language here, and most everyone (especially the peddlers) speaks at least a few words. Side note about this: We are soooo lucky our language is the universal one! It’s hard enough to communicate as it is, I can’t imagine trying to visit here and not knowing Hindi or English!!! AMERICANS HAVE SO MUCH TO BE THANKFUL FOR!!! For my American friends, please give thanks to the land you were born in today and that we have so many doors open to us!!
After getting acquainted at camp, we learned it was the first outdoor experience, and first time seeing the mountains for most of the others! Crazy! I guess that’s like US mid-westerners who have never seen the ocean or Floridians who have never seen snow. Unthinkable, but pretty common. It IS a huge country. :/ I’m so thankful for the opportunity to travel... even in your own country, let alone the world.
We carpooled upriver to the starting point, the other riders blasting their iPods and dancing to obviously mainstream, awesome indian dance music! You couldn’t help but tap along to the beat :). Then during the white water raft, our fellow paddlers taught us chants and we egged on the other boats with them. I'd try to recite it but I’d it butcher it horribly, so just know it was super fun! We felt very included which was wonderful, despite them having to speak their second tongue to do so. The water was freeeeezing, but who can say no to swimming in the holy water of the Ganges!!! We didn’t have much choice actually as our guide booted us into the water! He had us stand up on the raft going down some rapids, let us body surf thru some, and stopped for some cliff jumping (yay!). Robyn and I were in the first row (by request!) which are the adventure seats. We went thru a class 4+ rapid called Roller Coaster- not surprisingly was our favorite :). Back at the camp w/ all sat around the campfire and sang songs... well, everyone else sang songs, but they sounded nice! At one point they started singing Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” ha! awesome. After the camp fire, they led us on a sweet Night Trek behind camp. In all reality, it was exactly like a rafting/camping trip anywhere-- except in a different language! Oh and the food was fabulous--- full on, catered quality Indian food. Really really great day :)
|Early morning bus ride thru the Himalayas.|
|Our beach camp! San Rimo!|
|Holy water... holy freeeeezing!|
|Highly recommend White Water rafting with this company!! Sunil, the owner |
was fantastic and totally hooked us up!
We woke up early and sat on the beach drinking our new staple, masala tea (about 3 cups each.. it’s delishh!!!). It was sooo nice to slow the pace down. Then pick it up again!! We got to try rock climbing and rappeling. Love the guides for noticing I could handle a bit more than the city folk, they taught me how to “commando rappel’: face-first and giant leaps down the rock! Loooooved that :).
|Rock climbing to start the day? yes please!|
|Robyn ROCKED her fear of heights on this rappel! YAYYYYY!! Triumph!|
|Commando is the way to go!!|
Being city folk, many people on the night trek got frightened and frozen w/ real fear, not knowing what they were in for. There was no impatience at all though, from either the guides or the other climbers , just helping hands, encouraging words, and continuous checking up. I could just imagine the same elsewhere--- irritation and restlessness abounding. But not in this case. Once again, proving very accommodating, patient, gentle, and super helpful. :)
We left Rishikesh at 5:30am, to catch a bus to get to the train, to take ten hours to get to Agra!!! We def got ripped off on this one!! We thought we were getting an AC sleeper train. haa. It technically was a sleeper, but more like for child size, and certainly not AC!! It was hot and crowded and noisy. The day before I’d started to have what feels like sinus congestion and it increased to a full on sinus headache the whole day on that train ride. That wasn’t so fun. Since I’ve never had allergies, I’m thinking its a pollution headache! Does that exist?? The dirt is everywhere! Every night my eyes are totally bloodshot from it too. To look at the bright side, I’m thankful I haven’t had a chance to clip my nose hairs to block at least some pollution!! Haa! I’ve still got a good attitude, the fact being that I have innumerable blessings, and every which way you look here reminds me of such. Heck no can I even consider thinking ‘poor me, I have a headache’. I knew it would be so, but above all else I think this country will ground into me perspective and gratitude....and patience!
|Ten hours on that train= delirious!|
We crashed hard, then the morning was a frantic rush to get up and get to a rooftop cafe for the sunrise over Taj Mahal. We'd heard it was the thing to do!! We made it with plenty of time... and then waited for this magical moment to happen. I’m going to be quite honest here-- it’s was... non-climactic. One can’t deny the beauty of the Taj-- it’s a fantastic piece of architecture, but there were two things that hampered it for me. One-- it’s so polluted the sky appeared to be in heavy smog the whole time. No dazzling colors or clouds, or even seeing the sun... it just gradually got brighter and brighter, until it was like, okay, now it’s day. And second, again the word ‘Contrast’ rears it’s ugly head. As an architect I struggled with this at my office, fighting the need to please a client that I couldn’t relate to at all. Not all of them were pompous, (in fact many set great example of humility) but the Taj reminds me of one, an egotistical millionaire with his big ol’ diamond and gem encrusted belt buckle and his closet bigger than my whole apartment at that time... It’s just so vain! And here at the Taj... one could zoom their camera in and just click the palace.... but I couldn’t overlook the vast contrast of the shacks and deteriorated buildings in the foreground. To build such a complex in the midst of all that poverty!!! Maybe all that wasn't there when it was built.. but I can't imagine it was much better. This is along the same lines as why I don’t like fancy brands. It’s such a non-necessity!!! We did go inside (750 rupees for foreigners, 20 for Indians!).. we had to!! The marble work was fantastic, the grandiosity of it divine; I did enjoy it, but it was a tainted joy.
|The real Taj Mahal|
|The morning queue. Personal space not so much!|
One has to wonder though if I overthink it. Probably, I overthink everything :). Does the neighboring shack feel jealousy and put down and constantly reminded of what they dont have? Or do they wake every morning and feel joy for being so close to such an splendor? One of the seven wonders of the World??! Does the typical Indian wake and wish they had shoes or clean water, or is that what they are used to and are happy with what they have? I think I’m going to do some more investigating. I’d like to ask these questions. Stay tuned :)
|We had to do our tourist due diligence! Photoshoot at the Taj Mahal! It was pretty incredible.|
So far, I do like India. The places we've been are dirty, the people are not. They are good and kind. Generally patient. Curious about us as a people. The constant stares can be intimidating, and at times you do feel targeted, but I'll admit we do stick out like walking wallets. Robyn and I have noticed they take great pride in their appearance. The garments super colorful and ornamental. And every time I've been in a bathroom the girls are fixing their hair like anywhere. It's taking some getting used to, that's for sure, but I believe there is a lot to be gained (and a lot to be given) from this country.