When I had asked a British couple I’d met in Hanoi about their favorite part of India, they had said, “The flight out. India is an endurance test.” I thought they were just being negative and brushed them off. However, after my three week trip around the northern part of India with my dear friend Jayne, I knew exactly how they felt. Part of it was just the hardship of travel in India, the filth, the poverty that was so pervasive. But the other part was our own fault. We tried to do too much. Had we lingered more and traveled less, we might have had a better and more rewarding experience.
There are things I would do differently next time around. I would not travel to so many places on one trip. I would spend at least 3 days in each destination. I would try to linger in town and chat with the locals. I would just BE present in each time and place and savor the ambiance.
MY 7 TOP EXPERIENCES in India:
1) Sunrise boat ride on the Ganges in Varanasi: The ghats and the buildings on land glowed like warm terra-cotta in the streetlights and the pre-dawn light, and people were out in droves bathing in the Ganges. It was peaceful and gorgeous with this orange glow, the sound of oars slapping the surface of the river, the quiet boats full of orange-robed monks, photo-snapping Asian tourists, and other fellow nomads. On the ghats, pilgrims offered puja, meaning offerings or prayers, to the rising sun.
We started at Dasaswamedh Ghat, the liveliest and most colorful ghat, with its flotilla of boats and its two pink towers painted with gaudy Hindu gods. Along the shore we watched people washing clothes in the Ganges, students doing yoga and meditation and studying Sanskrit, women selling flowers, and people just hanging out. We each lit candles with our deepest wishes and sent them floating down the river.
sunrise boat ride on the Ganges with Ajay
Jayne lights a candle
I light a candle
Jayne and I
on the Ganges
sunrise on the Ganges
2) A camel “safari” in Jaisalmer: As the sun started to set, we climbed on a camel directly outside the gates of our camp. Our white-robed guide led the camel by rope all around the dunes surrounding the camp. We didn’t venture far, but it was lovely as a breeze started to cool us and the sun dropped, spilling pinks, lavenders and periwinkles across the horizon. I took multitudes of pictures of the desert and the shadows we made on the sand as we rode our camel. We enjoyed watching other native camel riders galloping across the dunes on the humpbacks of their steeds. As the sun went down, the guide had the camel lie down in the sand and we climbed off and wandered around, checking out the other camels and the people running about. It was lovely, but definitely NOT what I would consider a “safari!”
Camel “safari” in Jaisalmer
Camel “safari” in Jaisalmer
Camel “safari” in Jaisalmer
Camel “safari” in Jaisalmer
Camel “safari” in Jaisalmer
Camel “safari” in Jaisalmer
Camel “safari” in Jaisalmer
3) Massages. We had numerous massages in India that left us relaxed and dripping in oil.
garden near massage spot in Varanasi
me after one of many massages
4) Tailor-made clothes: We had salwar kameez made at Delhi Haat, a “craft cottage industries.” Basically salwar kameez is a unisex dress worn in South and Central Asia similar to the shirt and pants worn by westerners. We had a blast here! The salesmen offered us large Kingfisher beers, and we had a grand time picking out fabrics, getting measured, buying scarves, and just general high jinx! This turned out to be one of the most fun times we had in India. Later that evening, we each had two new salwar kameez delivered and ready to wear on our trip through India.
Having salwar kameez made at Delhi Haat
5) Shopping: India has a plethora of textiles, paintings, jewelry and other things to buy. We always loved our shopping expeditions.
one of many shopping expeditions in India
one of many shopping expeditions in India
shopping in Udaipur
6) Meetings with gurus: We met with two gurus, one in Varanasi and one in Rishikesh. The one in Rishikesh seemed much more legitimate than the other, but it was funny that they both gave us similar readings. I wrote about them in my original blog posts about Varanasi and Rishikesh.
me with our guru in Rishikesh
7) Boat ride in Udaipur: Udaipur is considered to be Rajasthan’s most romantic city. We took a boat ride from the City Palace jetty (Bansai Ghat) and circled around Lake Pichola. From the boat we could see the other side of the City Palace, bathing and dhobi (clothes-washing) ghats, Sisarma village, and two islands. The first, Jagniwas Island, or the Lake Palace Hotel island, was formerly the royal summer palace but was now covered in luxury hotels complete with shady courtyards, lotus ponds and a pool shaded by a mango tree. We didn’t get to go on this island as it was private property.
We did make a stop at the palace on Jagmandir Island, which was built by Maharaja Karan Singh in 1620, and added to by Maharaja Jagat Singh (1628-52). Surrounded by a row of enormous stone elephants, it had a chhatri carved from grey-blue stone. It was lovely sitting on the island and looking out at the lake through the curtained marble arches. It’s said the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was partly inspired by this palace for his Taj Mahal, after he stayed here in 1623-24, while leading a revolt against his father, Jehangir.
boat ride in Udaipur
boat ride in Udaipur
boat ride in Udaipur
boat ride in Udaipur
12 Places I Enjoyed:
1) The Bahá’í House of Worship in Delhi is called the Lotus Temple because of its flower shape. The Bahá’í laws emphasize that the House of Worship should be a gathering place where people of all religions may worship God without denominational restrictions. The leaflet they gave us explained that it is a “new, independent world religion whose purpose is to unite all the races and peoples of the world in one universal Cause and in one common Faith.”
The grounds of the Lotus Temple were serene and manicured, with gardens and emerald-green grass and flowers. We dropped our shoes at an underground shoe-keeping operation, and walked around the temple and its surrounding pools of water. It was lovely.
The Lotus Temple in Delhi
me at the Lotus Temple
2) The Red Fort in Delhi dated from the peak of the Mughal dynasty. This is another of Shah Jahan’s construction projects; he built it between 1638 and 1648. The grounds were nicely manicured and I loved the architectural style, a synthesis of Persian, European and Indian art elements.
The Red Fort
3) Gandhi Smriti, the Mahatma Gandhi memorial in Delhi. The museum was fascinating, filled as it was with photographs of Gandhi and his words of wisdom, dioramas of his life, and the footsteps that show the walk he took prior to his assassination on January 30, 1948.
We walked through the beautifully manicured grounds of the museum, alongside the path where actual concrete footsteps were attached to the sidewalk showing Gandhi’s final steps before he was killed by a fanatic Hindu assassin. The spot where he died is marked by a small pavilion known as the Martyr’s Column. Gandhi had been staying at this house as a guest for 144 days, and we saw the room where he slept on a mattress on the floor, along with his few meager possessions: a walking stick, spinning wheel, sandals and spectacles. I loved the peaceful beauty of this place, especially situated as it was in the center of chaotic Delhi.
me with the Peace Gong
4) Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi was built in the mid-16th century by Haji Begum, the Persian-born senior wife of the second Mughal emperor Humayun. The style is Persian, but the two-tone combination of red sandstone and white marble shows a merging of Indian and Persian cultures. The grounds were lovely and I loved the architecture in India left behind by the Mughal rulers. The highlight of our time at Humayun’s Tomb was being accosted by uniformed schoolboys and schoolgirls who begged us to take pictures with them.
schoolchildren at Humayun’s Tomb
5) Rishikesh – I loved all of it. This was the most chill place we encountered in India, my favorite stop of all. I wrote about my time in Rishikesh here: rishikesh, india: of snake charmers & gurus.
6) On the next leg of our trip leaving Agra, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, the short-term capital of the Mughal empire between 1571-1585. Emperor Akbar came here to consult the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, who predicted the birth of an heir to the Mughal throne. When his prophecy came true, the Emperor built his capital here, with a mosque and three palaces for each of his favorite wives: one a Christian, one a Muslim and one a Hindu. Because of water shortages in the area, the capital was abandoned shortly after Akbar’s death.
7) The Amber Fort (also known as Amer Fort) is 11 km north of Jaipur. This honey-hued fort palace was the ancient capital of Jaipur state. Maharaja Man Singh began building the Amber Fort in 1592. It is known for its artistic style, blending both Hindu and Mughal elements. The fort with its large ramparts, series of gates and cobbled paths, overlooks the Maota Lake. We climbeded up the fort from the road and on the way passed by caravans of brightly painted and decked-out elephants coming down the hill. For long moments I was transported back to a time of majestic trade caravans and maharajas. It was quite a romantic place, one of my favorite spots in India.
me with Jayne at Amber Fort
elephant at Amber Fort
8) I loved Gatore Ki Chhatriyan, a site of the royal cenotaphs, also outside of Jaipur. It was a beautiful and serene spot (rare in India), surrounded by a small village. The monuments inside were intricately carved and the whole spot was quite elegant. Small open air pavilions or gazebos were arranged in an artful pattern. Each gazebo had exquisitely delicate columns holding up white domes. Peaceful and soothing, it was one of my favorite spots in Jaipur.
Gatore Ki Chhatriyan
Gatore Ki Chhatriyan
Gatore Ki Chhatriyan
Gatore Ki Chhatriyan
Gatore Ki Chhatriyan
Gatore Ki Chhatriyan
9) Jaisalmer Fort was built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler, Jaisala, and reinforced by subsequent rulers. The fort encloses narrow streets paved with sandstone, a maharaja’s palace, temples and havelis, and sits atop the Trikuta hill. This place was one of my favorite forts because it was so much more than a tourist attraction; it was actually a living museum as a significant portion of the old city’s population resides within the fort walls.
haveli in Jaisalmer Fort
10) On the way to Mehrangarh Fort, outside of Jodhpur, we stopped at the lovely Jaswant Thada, a white marble memorial to Maharaja Jaswant Singh II. It is a lovely memorial with its plethora of exquisitely carved and whimsical domes and jalis, or carved marble lattice screens. The setting is lovely, with flower gardens abloom, and the view to the imposing Mehrangarh is impressive. We wandered around the grounds and through the memorial, soaking up the beautiful surroundings.
me at Jaswant Thada
11) Our rickshaw driver took us further up the steep hill to the Mehrangarh Fort outside of Jodhpur. This fort with its sheer soaring walls is run by the descendents of the Maharaja of Jodhpur.
The terra-cotta colored latticed palace complex and courtyards were like a maze. Around every corner was a surprise. In the extensive museum, we saw trappings of Indian royalty, including howdahs, the seats which transported royal family members on the backs of elephants. We came across sumptuously decorated rooms with plush carpets, gold-filigreed columns, painted walls and ceilings and stained glass windows. We spent a long time wandering through the museum and the palace. At one point, we watched a turban-wrapping demonstration in a small courtyard. Later we climbed to the very top of the palace, where our view of Jodhpur was amazing.
view of Jodhpur from Mehrangarh Fort
me at Mehrangarh Fort
12) Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra and is an island connected by bridges to the mainland. It’s the most populous city in India with 20.5 million people, and is also the 6th most populous in the world. It is also the richest city in India and has the highest GDP of any city in South, West or Central Asia. We regretted that we didn’t have more days here and we much preferred Mumbai to Delhi. It was much cleaner and not so “in your face” with poverty, although we knew it had the world’s largest slum. Luckily, we bypassed the “slum experience.” We wished we had spent more time here and omitted Aurangabad entirely from our trip.
me with Jayne in Mumbai
My passion for Indian food only increased during this trip. And after the food in Korea, believe me, it was a welcome change.
We ate dinner at a very cool and modern restaurant at Delhi’s Connaught Place called Lido. Cool music was blaring loudly through the restaurant, and it had more the ambiance of a bar than a restaurant. I ordered a red wine and Jayne ordered a super large Kingfisher beer (they only seem to come in super large sizes in India). We shared delicious prawns curry, Parmesan and rosemary naan and a delicious vegetable jhalfrezi. Jhalfrezi is the Indian version of Chinese stir-fry made with curry spices: turmeric, cayenne powder, cumin, coriander, dry mango powder, cinnamon and cloves. These spices are mixed with bell peppers, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, cauliflower, and string beans. A delicious dinner and ending to a crazy first day in Delhi.
At Nirula’s, India’s oldest fast-food restaurant chain, we feasted on Vegetable Deluxe Thali, a combination platter of Dal Makhani (boiled lentils), Paneer Makhani (Indian cottage cheese in rich tomato gravy), Mixed Vegetable Raita (cucumber, tomato, and onions with grated coconut, green chilies and mustard seeds), Zeera Rice, Pudina Parantha (a kind of bread), Moti Choor Laddu (a kind of sweet), Papad- Roasted, Sirka Onion, and mixed pickle. It was delicious, cheap and quite a feast! Perfect lunch!
In Rishikesh, at the Buddha German Bakery, Bob Marley sang “Buffalo Soldier” on the sound system. We ate Tibetan spinach cheese momos, ricotta cheese and spinach filled dumplings served with spiced sesame seed sauce. A lovely breeze whispered through the restaurant as we lazily watched rafters negotiate the rapids on the river below. I felt peaceful for the first time in India.
dinner at the Buddha German Bakery in Rishikesh
We became interlopers at a nice hotel called Corbett Hideaway, where on a deck overlooking the Kosi River, we drank beers and ate mungfali nuts – roasted peanuts with fine chopped onion, green chili, tomato, and coriander leaves. We had so much fun because we hadn’t had a drink since Varanasi and these beers were exceedingly refreshing.
having beers at Corbett Hideaway
In Agra, we at the vegetarian Lakshmi Vilas. We had Idli, lentils and rice ground to paste and steamed in an oven with sambhar coconut chutney; Vada, or lentils ground to a paste and deep-fried, also served with sambhar and chutney. We had Mysore Masala, or Dosai, which is a rice pancake made in butter served with sambhar and coconut chutney, and mixed vegetable uttapam, or thick rice pancakes. All this topped off with fresh lime soda, an Indian specialty.
dinner at Lakshmi Vilas in Agra
At the Palace Cafe, in Jaipur, we ate another fabulous Indian lunch: Dal Palak, yellow lentils cooked with shredded spinach and Indian spices; Tandoori Naan; Bharwan Aloo, scooped potato stuffed with cashew nuts, cottage cheese, raisins and green herbs soaked in tandoor; Kingfisher beers and lemon rice. It was expensive but delicious and we were able to relax in the lovely cafe and listen to a bright-red costumed and turbaned guy playing an interesting oboe-like instrument.
At Saffron, on the rooftop of the Nanchana Haveli, overlooking Gandhi Chowk in Jaisalmer, we ate delicious Dum Aloo Kashmiri, or potato barrels filled with dry fruits and mashed vegetables; Vegetable Seekh Kebab, or assorted mashed vegetables with mild spices on a skewer cooked in a clay oven.
Some performers came up as the sun was setting. They were really cute, banging on drums and playing flute-like instruments. One of the young guys asked us our names and then proceeded to sing a funny wailing kind of personalized tune: “Caaaattthyyy! Jayyyynnnnniiiiieeee!” and waving his arm in a snake-dance way. We laughed and laughed, carrying our laughter with us into the night and back to our hotel.
me at Saffron in Jaisalmer
the rooftop restaurant Saffron in Jaisalmer
inside at Saffron
At the Raj Palace Hotel, we found the Whistling Teal restaurant in Udaipur. It was set back from the busy street in a garden courtyard and had a lovely atmosphere, despite the mosquitoes. There, we enjoyed a Kingfisher beer, fish tikka, and the most delectable masala peanuts, mixed with tomato, onion, cilantro, saffron, and lime juice. The lovely setting only enhanced the treats we found in this place.
me at the Whistling Teal
What I loved and found annoying all at once:
1) The Taj Mahal. We entered through the south gate, which is a 30-meter high red sandstone gateway inscribed with verses from the Quran. Once we passed through the gate, we could see the Taj Mahal standing on a raised platform at the far end of the ornamental gardens, with the Yamuna River behind. Because the river is behind and because it sits on a platform, its backdrop is simply the beautiful sky. There are no unsightly buildings behind to detract from the vision. Since we were here close to sunrise, the backdrop was brushstrokes of lavender, purple and coral. It was stunning.
The ornamental gardens are designed in the style of formal Persian gardens, a square divided by watercourses, with an ornamental marble plinth at its center. Usually, in pictures, I had seen the Taj beautifully reflected in the watercourses. However, today, there was no water in the watercourses. Why that was, I had no idea, but it was irritating. Why couldn’t the Indian government keep anything properly maintained and running? The Taj Mahal is arguably the most beautiful building in the world and is the biggest tourist attraction in India. You would think that because of this, the monument would be sparkling and spiffy ALL THE TIME! However, on this day, it looked like a poorly maintained tourist attraction. People always say the Taj Mahal NEVER disappoints. It was still beautiful, but the dried up watercourses definitely detracted from the beauty. Slightly, yes, it DID disappoint.
The building is lovely, with its white minarets at each corner of the raised marble platform. The vaulted arches on its facade are embellished with Quran quotations in inlaid jasper calligraphy. The central bulbous dome is surrounded by four small domes. Inside the central chamber, light streams through finely cut marble screens. We couldn’t view the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, as they were in a locked basement beneath the main chamber.
It was lovely with its exquisite setting and its mournful story. In a dream-state, we wandered and sat on benches, soaked up the atmosphere and watched the hordes of Indian families and tourists against the backdrop of the world’s most beautiful building.
On our way out of Agra, as we crawled out of the town, five boys squeezed onto one motorcycle rode along beside us and surprisingly threw a bunch of roses into the car. Sweet!
South Gate of the Taj Mahal
me in salwar kameez at the Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal with no water in the watercourses
roses from passers-by
2) Hotels: Some were fabulous, and others were real dumps.
our hotel at Corbett Tiger Reserve
What I hated about India: 9 unsavory impressions.
1) In Delhi, the streets were teeming with auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, cows, garbage, extremely poor people living right on the streets, dogs, more garbage, cow shit — basically utter chaos and frenzy. Around us, in our faces, were motorcycles, ox carts, bicycles pulling carts loaded down with huge bundles of stuff. Tents fashioned out of blue tarpaulin sheets lined the streets. Trash and debris were built into the landscape, a permanent marring of the scenery.
Driving around Delhi was an assault on the senses. The roads in Delhi went around grassy circles in which poor men and women slept or ate or played cards. Filthy children ran around with no pants on so they could poop or pee anywhere the urge hit them. Thousands of people lived on the sides of the road either in the open air or under blue tarp tents, people with emaciated bodies, filthy faces and clothes. They lived in animal-like ways under bridges and overpasses, making fires, and washing clothes and picking lice out of each others hair. Men chewed paan, betel leaf filled with powdered tobacco with spices (although there are other variations without tobacco), and spit the red juices all over the place. Men everywhere pissed shamelessly against walls or trees or into bushes.
When caught in traffic in Delhi, people approached our car trying to sell magazines or long chains with colorful elephants on them, or any sort of thing you can imagine. Then there were the people who I called the “black ghosts,” the really dark Indians who silently appeared at our car window, right in our faces, pressing their foreheads against the windows. Most often, these were women in saris with rings in their noses, holding a baby and making gestures of feeding the baby. Begging for money to feed their child. Sometimes the “black ghost” was a young boy who had smeared his own spit under his eyes to look like he was crying, holding his empty fingers to his mouth, as if putting food in his mouth, but his fingers were empty. This occured so many times throughout India that if I were to give $1 to every person who asked for money, I would need thousands or even millions of dollars. It was incredibly sad and disturbing.
2) Ridiculous fees and requirements: I was happy to leave India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid, as it was filthy and the market below was even worse. One truly irritating thing was that we were forced to pay the shoe-minder for minding our shoes. Another guy also tried to get us to pay for the cloth coverings they forced us to wear, even though we didn’t need them because we were wearing long sleeves and long pants. We refused to pay him because we didn’t want the damn things anyway, and this was nothing we agreed to beforehand. This kind of thing became a constant irritation on this trip. Everywhere, we were forced to pay for stupid things we didn’t even want to do. I didn’t need anyone to “mind my shoes!!” I could have cared less if anyone took them!! I also didn’t feel we should have to pay for having to wear a cloth covering, after the fact, that we didn’t even need!!
me in the enforced covering at Jama Masjid
3) Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and one of the holiest places in India. It was unapologetically chaotic, insane, and edgy. There was no way to prepare for the streets that were Varanasi: narrow two-lane dirty roads where cows roamed and munched lazily on plastic bags and garbage. They shat all over the place, adding to the generally all-encompassing piles of debris. Cows ruled here, along with mangy skin-diseased dogs, small armies of pigs pushing up dirt with their snouts, goats, and more cows.
People’s clothes and faces and arms were covered in dirt and they lived alongside the cows and other animals, stepping over their piles of shit, accepting, even embracing, it as a permanent part of the landscape. Women in saris sat on piles of rubble hand-mixing the profusion of shit with hay and forming it into little patties, which they then formed into larger igloo or beehive shapes to use as cooking fuel later. Horns honked and screeched and played goofy little ditties, a cacophony of loud abrasive noise. Whole families burst at the seams of auto-rickshaws, hanging on for dear life and smiling as if they were having the happiest moments of their lives. Between the bicycles, cycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, the cows, the animals, and the filthy people, there was not a space to breathe or rest. Everyone and everything was in constant motion, and you had to go along with the flow or be swallowed whole.
Walking down the narrow alleys, we encountered a queue of cows bullying their way through; we had to push ourselves up against the wall to avoid getting underfoot or gored. Down another alley, cows were sleeping or just lounging on steps. Goats wandered along and a dirty puppy jumped up performing tricks for treats, of which we had none to give him. We passed vendors selling bags of sandalwood and spices and beautiful textiles. Flies swarmed everywhere around the piles of cow shit on the streets. I felt like dirt and filth were jumping off the alleyways, buildings and animals and clinging to my clothes and skin.
I wrote more about Varanasi here: varanasi, india: of ghats & gurus
cow in Varanasi
rickshaws filled to capacity in Varanasi
chaos of Varanasi
me in Varanasi
drunken dancer at a wedding in Varanasi
Varanasi at night
4) Travel in India on roads and trains was an endurance test. I have already written on this blog about our challenging time traveling from Varanasi to Rishikesh: on journey: chandigarh >> to delhi (???) >> to rishikesh….14 grueling hours.
On another road trip from Rishikesh to Jim Corbett National Park, we whizzed past whole families lounging on wooden horse-drawn flatbed carts. Cows stood along the roadways munching greedily on plastic wrap and garbage. Artfully arranged produce stands beckoned with their tantalizing but forbidden fruits. Motorcycles congregated in unlikely places. Buildings were in various states of decrepitude or half-completion. Rusted pieces of scrap metal lay around haphazardly. We passed multitudes of colorful Hindu temples and shrines and trucks piled high with sugar cane and bamboo stalks. Roadside stands boasted colorful aluminum foil ribbons of breath fresheners. Bicycle tire repair shops dotted the landscape. Tire stores, piles of gravel, crumbling walls with half-ripped notices and posters: these decorated India’s roads. Garbage was strewn everywhere, and countless men stood peeing against walls and into fields of debris or grass or just into the dirt. The strange thing was that we never saw women squatting to pee along the road. We wondered if there was some law that forbid women to pee in public, but allowed men to do so.
We saw the strangest things everywhere. There were whole mini-“villages” of honeycomb-looking structures made of cow dung, some kinds of cow dung teepees. They were too small to be houses. But they were so neatly arranged they looked almost like something artistic. Our driver told us they were used in construction to pack into holes in houses, thus keeping out the rain. Or they were used as cooking fuel.
5) Corbett Tiger Reserve was a real letdown. We never saw any tigers, and were treated to a safari with an uninformative and unfriendly guide, during which we only saw deer and chickens.
6) On the long road trip from Corbett Tiger Reserve to Agra, I grew to hate potatoes as we got stuck behind scores of huge trucks carrying potatoes to put in cold storage. We couldn’t believe the numbers of these trucks, lined up along the roads, blocking our passage. They slowed our trip considerably. We passed an overturned truck of potatoes. Another potato truck had a flat tire and to change it, people stacked up tall columns of bricks which looked very unstable, like an exaggerated Jenga game. We passed a bus stuck in a ditch, its passengers sitting inside silently at an unnatural angle. Other rickety buses were packed with grimy people, hanging out of windows and doors and sitting on the roofs.
Everywhere women in saris walked with bowls of cow dung paddies on their heads. Horns on Indian vehicles made every sound imaginable from “Oooooaaawwwwoooo” to “balabla balabla” musical tunes to “squeeeeaaaallll” and “eeeeeekkkkk” to “beep beep beep.”
The towns we passed along the way were clogged nightmares, where traffic tangled into muddles with no discernible rhyme or reason. Each town was a chaotic knot of filthy people, cows, animals, carts, auto rickshaws, and anything else imaginable. They swarmed all around our car, pressing hands and faces against the windows, begging for money. We were totally surrounded and could only inch along. There was no clear path in any direction. We encountered this in every town along the way to Agra. Along the sides of the road were hovels with disgusting fat men covered in red betel juice, snoozing on their sides with bellies hanging out of their shirts.
On this day, I understood what one billion people felt like. And it hit me hard that India did not have the infrastructure or the will to take care of 1 billion people. It was horribly sad and upsetting that so many people were living in such squalor and disarray.
on the road from Chandigarh to Rishikesh in India
7) Train travel: A 12-hour train ride from Jaipur to Jaisalmer, beginning at midnight: After midnight, on a blue train smothered in smutty blue light, we stuffed our suitcases in the space between our two bunks and settled in to try to sleep. With great foresight, Jayne bought along two sheets that were like sleeping bags, sewn together on three sides, with just an opening for our heads. This was the first time in our travels that we pulled these out and stuffed ourselves inside of them. I was so happy to have this sheet-bag to sleep in, to put layers between myself and the filthy mattress and the tattered and scratchy wool blanket provided by the train. The train was disgustingly dirty and I was afraid of bugs and other critters crawling over me in the night.
I got up several times to use the bathroom, which was a squat toilet that emptied directly onto the tracks. I got grossed out when Jayne mentioned that she saw rats running around on the train tracks in the Jaipur station. I imagined whole families of rats thriving along the rails, gorging themselves on people’s droppings from the trains. It was disgusting. So often in India, I was shocked by how people lived like animals. Yet. Somehow, they went about their daily lives carefree and chipper, ignorant that anything better might be possible.
On a train ride from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur: I wasn’t able to relax knowing that the dreaded train lay before us that evening. I read pages and pages of White Tiger by Aravind Adiga in the afternoon, which made me more uptight. His bleak and dark descriptions of India only exacerbated the feeling of unease I had regarding the remainder of our trip and this train. I hated so much the 12-hour trip from Jaipur; this would be another 6 hours of torture to Jodhpur. Plus, because this was not an overnight train, I didn’t know what kind of compartment or seating to expect. I frankly was experiencing a great deal of anxiety, between reading this book and fearing our journey that night.
8) The train station & streets of Jodhpur: When we arrived in Jodhpur, we stood outside in front of the station in the dark, where people were sleeping all over the concrete, like fallen dominoes. One lady had her head on another lady’s stomach; a man had his feet on someone else’s chest. Some had their heads propped on their baggage. A fat orange-haired lady in a sari slept directly on the concrete while huge rats sniffed around her face. Fluorescent lights cast an eerie glow over the whole scene. All these people were sleeping directly on the concrete, no sheets or blankets to shield them from the hordes of rats scurrying about. Auto-rickshaws were lined up on the street, bathed in the sickly light. Young men kept coming up and asking us where we are going. They said, “Pal Haveli? Pal Haveli?” We said, who are you here for? We didn’t tell our names but insisted that they tell us who they were here to pick up. Finally, after many phone calls, they told us a name that was not Jayne’s. We said, no, you are not here for us.
Finally, after what seemed like an uncomfortable eternity, we were able to get someone to speak to the Pal Haveli, which sent a car for us. They were able to tell us Jayne’s name, so we finally knew we had the right driver.
train station in India
On the way out of the madhouse city of Jodhpur, we saw the usual hordes of dirt-covered and poverty-stricken Indians trying to eke out a living. Passing the clock tower and the Sardar Market, we were bombarded by vibrant sights and smells from the bazaars selling vegetables, spices, sweets, silver, textiles and handicrafts. We passed one man on the street; half of his face looked to be melted, like drooping rubber. We saw the usual people suffering with what seemed to be the common skin disease of vitiligo; their faces were splotchy with browns, pinks and whites, as if they’d been through an extreme chemical peel. Vitiligo is a skin condition in which there is a loss of brown color (pigment) from areas of skin, resulting in irregular white patches that feel like normal skin. It appears to occur when immune cells destroy the cells that produce brown pigment (melanocytes). This destruction is thought to be due to an autoimmune problem, but the cause is unknown. After reading White Tiger and the horrible state of health care in India, I guessed I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so much illness and deformity. However, the pervasiveness was shocking… and horribly sad.
9) Paan: All through India, we encountered multitudes of guys making paan. Paan is a betel leaf, chewed as a palate cleanser and a breath freshener, and for digestive purposes. In urban areas, chewing paan is generally considered a nuisance because some chewers spit the paan out in public areas. The red stain generated by the combination of ingredients when chewed make an unsightly stain on the ground. This is becoming an unwanted eyesore in Indian cities such as Mumbai, although many see it as an integral part of Indian culture. In our travels throughout India we saw the red stains everywhere and it was quite disgusting. In the book White Tiger, the author describes entire rooms in buildings on which the bottom portions of walls are stained blood-red.
paan vendor in Mumbai
I was deeply moved by Gandhi’s words, posted beneath photographs of him on the walls of the Gandhi Smriti museum. I’d read his philosophy before in different places, and his biography as well. One quote that I found particularly inspiring was this:
“I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. There can be no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability, or the curse of intoxicating drinks and drugs. Women will enjoy the same rights as men. We shall be at peace with all the rest of the world. This is the India of my dreams.” M. K. Gandhi
My thought was that, in the three weeks I spent in India, it was evident that Gandhi’s dream was far from being realized. As I traveled throughout northern India, this thought was reinforced and amplified time and time again. I felt sad that Gandhi’s vision, even under a “democratic” government in India, and despite India’s growth in the world economy, seemed so far from coming to fruition. The country was not taking care of its own. India, at least in 2011, did not have the infrastructure, neither did it seem to have the political will, to take care of its vast population of 1 billion people. This fact was thrust in my face throughout my 21 days in India.
Camel carriage in Gadi Sagar
In retrospect, my three-week trip to India with my friend Jayne was overambitious. We were both exhausted and more than ready to leave the country. Because of all the challenges we had, our friendship was sorely tested. We could hardly bear to speak to each other for nearly a month following our return home.
The country didn’t come close to attaining the gloss that is depicted in so many Bollywood movies. It didn’t resemble the picture I’d painted in my imagination. I guess I somehow expected it to be that version, with beautiful people dressed in exquisite textiles breaking out into song and dance amidst exotic architecture!
However, it was fun to watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) after returning home from India. I thought the depiction of the hardships was fairly realistic, but maybe a little glossed over.
Finally, to capture my travels in words and photos, I wrote in great detail about my entire trip to India here: catbird in south asia: india.
*March 1-21, 2011*
“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops. How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them? How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.
For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.
Include the link in the comments below by Sunday, January 5 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, January 6, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time.