Arrived in India at midnight. Walking outside was like stepping into a sauna, with all your clothes still on. The smell is distinct, as everyone had warned us, but it doesn't bother me. I secretly like it. In our failed attempt to call an Uber, we head towards the Mega radio taxi stand, all the while being haggled by the classic phrases of 'where you from my brother?’ and ‘come with me, I'm not an evil man'. At the stand, we are bombarded by several men yelling, just like wall street men closing a million dollar sale, except we were just two white people going for a taxi ride to our hotel. The lucky winner was a shady older gentleman, who starts leading us off the airport premises and expects us to follow him into a dark parking lot where his “taxi is parked". We have all watched too many movies, and can easily figure out the outcome of this scenario. So let's try this one more time. Two hours later we were finally laying on our beds in our air-conditioned room at Ananda Bed and Breakfast. And this began our journey into India.
Starting the second day off on a very late wake-up call, and finally managing to compose our jet lag, we spent the afternoon getting an introduction into our neighborhood, Chittaranjan Park, from our wonderful B&B host, Pankaj. Our initial steps outside the house led us to the noisy streets of Delhi, where motorcycle mufflers pop and crack, trucks bounce along the many potholes, auto-tuk drivers screech and speed up, and honking is used as way to inform you of their presence, saying ‘hello I am here’. It was difficult to get used to the sound at first, and we were very aware and focused every time someone honked past us, trying to maneuver our way slowly down the street. Pankaj walked us around the park and the adjacent outdoor shopping area, where a plethora of restaurants, coffee shops (of course there was a Starbucks), and supermarkets were located. Although a bit different in their exterior from Western shopping malls, we felt as if we had traveled to a familiar place, until we entered a local Indian restaurant for our first taste of Indian cuisine.
Let me spend some time to write about and introduce you to Indian cooking. I could easily dedicate an entire post on the food we devoured in India, but I'll leave that to the food bloggers out there. A country that is famously known for its dishes, there is so much more to it, than the first thought of 'ouch my mouth will be on fire' when it comes to eating the food. It always begins with the copious amounts of spices, whole, and ground, specific to each dish. An Indian kitchen will have spices readily available in their masala dabba- spice container, and can consist of any of the following: black pepper, cardamom, jeera, coriander, nutmeg, cumin, mustard seeds, cloves, cassia bark, fenugreek, turmeric, saffron, cinnamon, fennel seeds, nigella, red dry chili, and rock salt. Spice is the beating heart of any Indian dish and is unique to each region. The different vegetables, fruits, cheese, and rice, make up the soul. The different types of bread accompanying your meal like naan, chapati, roti, paratha, and dosa are the utensils, and the sauces on the side of green or red chutney and yogurt complete your tasty adventure. A cuisine that is filled with a burst of flavors and colors, just like the country itself. As bold eaters, we made sure to try every possible dish during our month long stay. No food was too scary and spicy for us, and if it was, we had our side of yogurt or mango lassi to soothe our eager tongues. From every type of masala, palak, biryani, thali, curry, vindaloo, and pakora, we managed to eat our hearts out.
I know that you may be wondering to yourselves how we ended up trying so many foods without the fear of catching the infamous ‘Delhi belly’. While there might have been some loose bowel movements due to spice overload, we were definitely not going to let that stop us from trying new flavors. Although, as we continue on, we do find out that I come down with a little something called dysentery. But that's later in our story.
We still could not believe we were in India. What exactly were we expecting? Whatever we had in mind, little could prepare us for an overload of stimulation to every one of our senses. It starts with the sounds; the cars on the busy streets, the constant honking, the man walking around the neighborhood selling vegetables on his cart repetitively calling out “aloo” (potato in Hindi), cows moo-ing past you on the roads, women’s anklets jingling as they walk, the sounds of Hare Krishna and the muezzin’s prayer. The concert of different sounds continuously plays for your ears as your eyes begin to slowly take everything in. Coming to India for us, and seeing life through a new perspective felt exactly like people in the sixties probably did when they were first introduced to colored-televisions. There are definitely not enough colors to describe what one sees. The green and bright yellow auto-tuks with patterned line interiors, pink, orange, red, and yellow exotic flowers placed on the shrines, red bindis on women’s foreheads, orange-colored attire to represent purity, spices aligned in a row at the markets, women’s intricately designed saris and kurtas flowing past you, gold and silver jewelry, henna lining women’s hands and feet, and the bright orange dyed hair of older men. Everywhere you looked it was easy to just sit and stare. In case your eyes failed you, the intense smells were there to guide you. Towards the vendor making fresh roti or grilling corn on the cob, the incense burning throughout the many small temples along the street, the intense smell of curry that made you both want and fear its spiciness.
Unfortunately, along with all the good comes the bad. The smell of the piles of trash that line the sides of the roads, mixed with pollution and stinging amounts of ammonia found in dried urine on the walls. The poverty stricken streets filled with shanty houses, men sleeping on the side of the highways, women lining up their clothes on the underpasses, and children jumping on to your auto-tuk begging for some change. A combination of qualities that arouse you in a completely different way. We thought of the times we complained about our comfort. When we were too cold we just threw on a blanket, or when we were hungry and HAD to go all the way to the supermarket with a full wallet. A country that is stricken with impoverishment, but its people filled with love and faith, always smiling, trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.
On our very first night out, we had the opportunity of going to a Sufi devotional music ceremony during Qawwali at Delhi's Nizamuddin Dargah. All people from walks of life come to the mosque to be swept away by the music. Before entering you can purchase a tray of multicolored rose petals and incense as an offering to the saint inside the Dargah, along with taking off your shoes and leaving them behind at one of the stalls for a small fee. If anybody knows me well, they know that I dislike feet, and do not do very well walking barefoot on floors other than my house and the beach. So I opted to keep my socks on. Upon arriving in a room filled with devotees, we made sure to leave our sweet-smelling offering behind and grab a seat on the floor along men and women, listening to the mesmerizing tunes of the Niazi Nizami Brothers. What an incredible and culturally authentic experience. Besides the occasional footy flirtation with older women, and being suffocated by your own sweat from the sweltering heat, it was one of the best experiences on our trip by far.
The next few days we zigzagged our way through crumbling doorways and tangled electrical wires hanging down, through the crowded streets of Chandichowk. We walked past the Jama Masjid mosque as men gathered for the afternoon prayer, we melted under the sun in the Red Fort, and stared in awe at the Lotus and Akshardham Temples. We took several auto-tuk rides, even making the mistake of taking one in the middle of rush hour with all the smog engulfing us, as we sat covering our mouths with a scarf. If you didn't want to be stuck in the constant traffic, the Delhi metro system was the easiest and cheapest way to get around, and even had an all woman's cart at the front of every train. We spent an afternoon watching families gather for picnics and men playing cricket in the Lodi Gardens. A strange yet touching experience, was being asked to have your photo taken with families who were in awe in seeing a Westerner. At first, we found it a little strange, and I am sure in the first couple of photos we looked terrified. But we soon realized it was their way of saying they found us interesting enough to be photographed with, exactly the way we felt when we saw these beautiful dressed women and men in their traditional clothing. So we decided to embrace the fame, giving us the opportunity to photograph them in return.
When we were not out being tourists or celebrities, we were enjoying long conversations about the meaning of life with Pankaj. As a former yoga instructor and like many in India on the path towards enlightenment, we were eager to find out what it truly takes to make us happy. We ordered Indian take-out and spent nights in the living room, along with fellow guests Rachel and her daughter Katie, discussing topics that might make one feel uncomfortable at first, but in the end allow you to discover a new way of thinking about your life. Pankaj had an interesting way of putting things into perspective, in which we admired him for. In the end, and after lots of Palak Paneer, we knew we were leaving with some new wisdom and a set of great friends.
You can call it dedication or craziness if you like, but our alarm woke us up at 3 in the morning, and off we went to make it to Agra by 6 to catch the morning light and avoid the crowds, to pay a visit to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World; the Taj Mahal. We slept the entire way and were finally jolted awake by the bumpy roads upon exiting the highway and heading into the city. For being one of the major tourist destinations in the world, Agra truly disappointed us. Small shack-like houses lined the major street, and although we were by now semi-used to the fact that trash lines every crevice of the roads, we were shocked at how filthy it really was. Pigs covered in mud, cows that were so skinny you could count their bones scrimmaging through bins for food, hens, roosters, and monkeys running all around you. It was a depressing version of “Old McDonald had a farm…”. As we pulled up to the parking lot, we were greeted with several rundown school buses now being used as housing, along with the aroma of fresh urine and cow dung. It was an interesting start towards the Great Gate and the entrance to the gardens of the great Taj Mahal. The surreal, ‘can’t believe I’m seeing this’ moment finally did happen, and in that instance we forgot all about the chaos, looking past the immaculately kept gardens and up at that perfect postcard picture of the Taj. I have to hand it to the guy, Shah Jahan, for building this monument for his deceased wife entirely out of white marble, and with such details that so elegantly define its presence. Husbands all over the world are I’m sure thanking him, for setting really high standards for the meaning and loss of your true love. As the sun began to rise and the clock struck 8, tourists flocked through the Persian-designed gardens and over the fountains, making the experience a bit less awe-striking than it initially was, and that was our cue to leave.
Leaving one magical place for another, we later found ourselves exploring the Agra Fort, a palace built by none other than our friend Shah Jahan (this guy was on fire). Rooms with fine details carved within the white marble, overlooking the city with a view of the Taj Mahal in the distance, was more than any Moghal could ask for. By the time the afternoon rolled in we were exhausted and started to make our way back to Delhi and prepare for our 13-hour bus ride towards the Himalayas.
Armed with snacks and other forms of entertainment we find our seats (which happen to be the very last row- yay I love bumps!) and settle in, what will be our home for the next 13-14 hours. As the bus driver comes around for the final head count, he hands us each our very own brand new vomit bags. Great introduction! We wave goodbye to Delhi and off we go until we spend the next hour sitting in traffic waving at the children running in the streets and showing off their giant smiles. As night starts to roll in and we start getting cozy and comfortable, so do the roads. Steep grades, followed by sharp turns and potholes that seem like real gaps in the earth's crust, make up the recipe for the worst bus ride ever. The cherry on top of it all? This is where I start feeling a bit sick to my stomach. And I don't mean sick, as in needing to bust out the vomit bags. Fourteen hours later we had arrived and so had the full onset of diarrhea accompanied by high fever. The next four days were unfortunately spent watching the luscious green mountains of Manali through our windows in our hotel room. Marco, being the great man that he is, lay by my side, as we flipped through the Indian tv channels watching an array of Bollywood movies and reruns of The Big Bang Theory.
Manali was our pit stop before we boarded yet another bus to take us to the city of Leh nestled 3,245 meters in the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. Seeing no improvement in my health we made the wise, yet disappointing decision, to head back to Delhi where we could seek medical help. We could only have imagined the beauty of Leh, looking out past the windows and seeing the river run through the village and the peaks of the Himalayas standing tall like gentle giants. On the morning we were leaving, I hoped that my stomach would behave and wouldn't be calling out for the toilet, but we had little time to worry about that and instead were scared for our lives. The taxi driver had misunderstood that we were late for our plane and decided to drive 100 kph on the narrow dirt rows situated high above the river I mentioned earlier. Except on this morning, it looked like it was roaring and angry. After several "oh my god we are dying" moments, I grabbed his shoulder and demanded that he slow down, which he did. An airplane ride and a monsoon storm later, we were back at Pankaj's place in Delhi. Finding out you have dysentery instead of classic food poisoning, is a bit shocking and not to mention disgusting. Didn't many characters in Little House on the Prairie die from dysentery? Or if anyone else remembers the Oregon Trail video game, there was a chance one of your characters managed to get dysentery and later die. I was terrified! But, thanks to technology and the modern world of medicine, I was prescribed antibiotics (thanks, Ash). So long were the days of Little House on the Prairie! My unfortunate bowel movements had changed our plans, but we were now happily en route to the state of Rajasthan.
First stop- the city of Jaipur, or pink city for its trademark building color. We spent the first couple of days taking walks along the Man Sagar Lake with a view of the Jal Mahal palace in the center, making friends with the different street vendors that lined the sidewalks. We got lost in the enticing Amer Fort, meandering our way around the fairyland and spending lots of time day-dreaming in the Palace of Mirrors.
The mother-daughter duo from Delhi, Rachel and Katie, met up with us a couple of days later for an afternoon well spent playing with rescued elephants at Elefantastic. The mistreatment and abuse of elephants for tourism are fairly common throughout Asia, that's why when we came across Rahul's little haven, we couldn't miss the opportunity to get to understand these incredible animals. Upon arrival, we were each introduced to our elephant for the day, and spent the next hour and half getting to bond with them. They love to be scratched on their foreheads and under their chins, and as they slowly reach their trunks down to grab the bamboo from your hands, their ears flutter like high-speed fans. It's a bit terrifying at first as you feed this giant mammal and they slowly start to take a couple of steps forward, happily touching you with their trunk, meanwhile you are thinking to yourself of the headlines that will be plastered worldwide, "tourist trying to help out gets trampled by elephant in India". If you want to see elephants really happy and playful just take them for a bath. We spent the rest of the afternoon washing these beautiful animals, as they sunk their trunks into the tubs of water and splashed the water all over their backs, getting us drenched in the process. It was an incredible afternoon being so close to one of nature's magnificent creatures.
On our last day in Jaipur we had the opportunity to take a day class at Jai Texart, on natural dyes and block printing. The first part of the day consisted of learning all about traditional dyes and methods, and how they can be adapted for modern use. We were then guided through the process as we each got to choose from thousands of hand carved wooden blocks and print our own scarves. The process sounds seemingly easy, but after 10 minutes of pressing down hard on the wooden block each time you printed, your hand would start to ache and you were ready to give up. We didn't. And after dyeing, printing, washing, and drying, we went home with our peices of art. Although the perfectionist inside me is cringing at the fact that some of the prints are not perfectly aligned, we are the very proud owners of two hand printed scarves.
From Jaipur we hopped on a train and headed to the blue city of Jodhpur. We arrived at our hotel Singhvi Haveli, conveniently located in the center of the old town, and immediately made our way to the busy Sardar Market. The streets were packed with local women shopping from vendors selling clothes, fruits and vegetables, jewelry, pottery, fabrics and household products. I even managed to sneak in a buy or two of some bangles and anklets. Could I leave India without them? Of course not. At the end of the market stands the tall clock tower or the tower of Rajasthan. Even if you are not here for the shopping, you can easily just soak in the vibrant atmosphere and rich colors on display all around you.
The next couple of days we relaxed at our hotel watching the sunset on the top of our terrace overlooking the old city. Children climbed their rooftops and flew their kites, and as the sunset the sky was filled with specks of different colors and the sound of children's laughter would echo through the walls of the city. We visited the monument of Jaswant Thada, the palace of Ummaid Bhavan, and the impressive Mehrangarh Fort with 360 views of the city of Jodhpur. We stumbled upon a free music meditation room where we tried to clear our minds with songs. And when we reached a point where we were confusing Moguls and Maharaj's we knew we had an overload of Indian history. And that was our cue. It was time to leave northern India behind and make our way down to the luscious south. But not before taking an overnight train back to Delhi and then catching a flight down to the southern state of Kerala.
Trains are probably our favorite way of getting around. It's a special way to take in both the city and the countryside, enjoy some people watching as you stroll up and down the wagons, and if you are really lucky to enjoy a meal as you gaze out the large windows and watch the world go by. Unfortunately, our overnight train was missing the diner cart but was still as exciting. Arriving at the train station with limited light, and crowds waiting to board (not to mention the wonderful rats having a party on the rails), we managed to pick our way through and try to find the 2AC tier wagons. A 12-hour train ride would definitely have to be in an air-conditioned cabin. We find our names on a list posted outside each wagon and meet our cabin mates for the ride. A young couple from Italy backpacking their way through India as well. Time passes fast as we get comfortable and spend the night sharing stories about our travels. A full night's sleep later on our twin bunks we were in Delhi and on our way to the international airport.
India had definitely awakened something inside us, and this was just the beginning. . .