My biggest fear about returning home to the US next year (other than finding a good job) is that we won’t be able to settle down. After 6 months of traveling in the US and Canada, we were restless to be abroad again. Don’t get me wrong, we loved spending time with family and friends and visiting parts of North America that we’ve never seen. But we were ready for something crazy and exotic. India definitely delivered.
The best advice I received about traveling in India was from our friend Ashley. “Save energy for India,” she told me when I mentioned that we might save India for the very last part of our travels. India is incredible, just like their marketing slogan says. But it’s also insane. It’s exhilarating, and exhausting. Delicious one minute, disgusting the next. Inspiring yet defeating. One minute you’re seeing the most incredible temple or palace you could imagine, the next your seeing a child (or even an adult) pooping on the side of the street. One moment you’re tempted by the tantalizing aroma of the most delicious and spicy Indian dishes, the next minute you smell raw sewage running down the street and completely lose your appetite. The women are clad in a rainbow-colored array of gorgeous saris with sparkly embroidery, their arms covered in dozens of glittering bangles, as they make their way between mountains of trash where stray dogs, pigs, and cows dig for food. You can see a temple covered with 750 kilos of gold or the Taj Mahal made of marble decorated by inlaid semi-precious stones. But then in the same country there are shanty towns where over 1,500 residents share a single bathroom. India is a country of extreme contrasts.
One of the most exhausting (and entertaining) aspects of India is the sheer amount of people. The country’s population is 1.27 BILLION. That’s 20% of the World’s population in one country! Yes, it’s a pretty big country but that’s still an unfathomable amount of people. So did it seem crowded? Absolutely. We noticed it most in the cities and on the trains. We quickly discovered why our guidebook warned us to avoid the local trains during rush hour on weekdays in Mumbai. One Friday evening we didn’t have a choice and had to take a local train during rush hour. I went into the women’s train car and Bryan went into the men’s. The men’s car was going wild because it was a festival day (Navratri). The car was decorated with garland, incense was burning, and the men were all singing loudly and banging the metal handles. As we neared our station the men warned Bryan and the women warned me that we needed to be ready to exit the car quickly. “GO NOW! GO NOW!” they yelled, but the train hadn’t even slowed. There was no way I was jumping off a moving train. We had all of our belongings with us at this time, too, so we looked like giant, pregnant turtles (big backpacks on our backs, small daypacks on our fronts). When the train did slow, it was already too late. The men pushed Bryan out his door and the women pushed me out the door but people were already climbing aboard, clawing, screaming, and pushing us. Somehow I was hanging in limbo out of the moving train’s door by my backpack. The women trying to get in the car were not pleased with me and continued to scream and claw until I finally managed to free myself. We were both sweating. Bryan thought the experience was awesome and wished he had his Go Pro camera on his head. I was just glad to be off that train.
India’s trains are like the veins of the country, carrying huge amounts of people and goods from place to place. And when I talk about the trains, don’t picture the Amtrak or any fancy European trains. The majority of India’s trains are nothing but basic. I know there are plenty of tourists that come to India and have a personal driver and never set foot on a train. But many backpackers, including Bryan and I, would agree that you haven’t really experienced India until you’ve ridden on a long distance train with the locals. We took plenty of trains – some overnight, some air-conditioned, and some “sleeper” class. Sleeper being the lowest class other than second class unreserved. The locals were always extremely friendly and helpful to us – sharing their food and wanting to learn about us and our country. They were always quite protective of their new foreign friends. During one train trip, it was dark and we were nearing a station when we heard a sudden loud bang on the side of the train by our window. “Close the windows!”all the passengers yelled and rushed to shut the metal windows. They explained that there were “bad people” for the next several kilometers that like to throw stones at passing trains. The same thing happened about an hour later. It was a strange experience but we were grateful for the helpful locals or we surely would have been hit upside the head with a rock.
If you really want to get a feel for the large population in India, just walk down the street. Chaotic doesn’t even begin to describe the streets, especially in the big cities. Picture rows of buses, cars, auto-rickshaws, mopeds, bicycles, and pedestrians all trying to fit on a road that’s not nearly wide enough. Then add some cows, water buffalo, pigs, goats, sheep, dogs, and maybe even an elephant, camels, and a few monkeys. Now imagine us trying to cross the street through all of this, attempting to dodge piles of poo that we hope are only from animals. It’s nuts – but awesome, too. A rickshaw ride through that madness is nothing short of exhilarating. But it’s loud. Indians just love to honk . . . constantly. Even when you clearly see them coming down the road and move out of the way, they lay on their horn as they pass. They honk when they pass another car. A lot of times they honk for no apparent reason. A local once asked us why we don’t have horns on our cars in America. We told him we do, but we just don’t use them all of the time.
An unfortunate outcome of all these people and all this traffic is pollution – by far the worst pollution we’ve ever seen. In Delhi the smog was so thick that our eyes and throats burnt. Sightseeing that day, we barely took any pictures because the sites were covered in haze. Some people told us the air pollution was particularly bad that day because it was the end of Diwali (the big Hindu “Festival of Lights”) and people had been burning lots of candles and setting off fireworks. Nearly the whole time we were in India, our noses ran black like they had while we were in Cairo, Egypt last year.
So I filled you in on some of what makes India so crazy. But don’t think that we didn’t like India because of these nuances. These things are what makes travel so fascinating, and they were exactly what we wanted to experience. We saw plenty of trash, pollution, traffic, crowds, and chaos while we were in India. But we also saw a lot of beautiful, amazing things. From the sandy beaches in the south to the towering Himalayas in the north, India has a lot to offer. Five weeks may seem like a lot of time to devote to a single country but it really wasn’t nearly long enough to spend in India. We saw as much as we could but we had to narrow down what we were most interested in and we really only scratched the surface of this huge and diverse country.
India has been our first experience in a largely Hindu country. It was also our first experience in a country with a Buddhist population. We learned a lot about other religions we’d barely heard of before such as the Sikhs and the Jains. As I’ve said many times before, travel is the best education. Five weeks in India taught me much more about world religions than my freshman year Religion 101 class in college. It was interesting to see the coexistence of such diverse religious beliefs.
Hampi was our first stop after Mumbai. It remains one of our favorite spots in India. Hampi was once that capital of the Hindu Empire. Because of its religious significance, the town does not allow meat or alcohol. But we didn’t miss either. There were fabulous ancient temples and ruins to explore and a chill, relaxed vibe throughout the area. We were fortunate enough to be in Hampi for the Navratri and Dussehra holidays. We saw Hampi light up their main street with several hundred tiny candles and decorate their sidewalks with colorful rangoli designs made from powdered chalk. We happened to visit the tiny town of Anegundi, across the river from Hampi, during their festive Dussehra parade complete with costumed men and a decorated elephant.
Outside of Aurangabad, we visited the caves of Ajanta and Ellora. Even though there were plenty of bats, these aren’t just your typical dark caves. They were carved from top to bottom out of sheer stone and had the most elaborate and intricate designs of religious figures. Ajanta is Buddhist and the Ellora caves are Buddhist, Hindu and Jain. Each site consisted of 30 or more caves. The most impressive structure (the Kailasa Temple in Ellora) took 7,000 workers over 150 years to complete and required them to remove over 200,000 tons of rock.
In Palitana, we climbed 3,600 stairs up a mountain to see over 1,000 breathtaking Jain temples. We were fortunate that we were able to get off India’s “tourist trail” and see much more than many visitors see. In some places, like Badami, Bijapur, and Palitana we were the few, if not the only, foreign tourists. In these towns, the people aren’t used to foreigners and therefore don’t see us as walking ATM machines like they do in some of the touristy places. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t get any attention. The people were fascinated with us. They would stare and take photos. The braver people would ask for pictures or shake our hands and ask our names and what country we were from. We’ve been in other countries where we received a lot of attention, but nothing to this degree. At first I thought that they wanted something from us, but they were just genuinely friendly and curious. As Americans with such a multicultural population, it’s really hard for us to imagine that they would be that interested in us just because we are foreign.
We had a few amusing “celebrity moments.” In Bijapur, Bryan and I were taking turns touring a mosque while the other watched our belongings in the lawn out front. When I was walking in the mosque, several people stopped me to pose for pictures with them. A few groups got the camera man that worked at the site to take photos. While I was still in the mosque, one of the families bought two 5 X 7 print-outs of these “family” photos (with me standing awkwardly in the middle). They found Bryan in the crowd and showed him the photos and asked if that was his wife. He was so confused and couldn’t figure out how they had gotten a printed out photo with me.
A few weeks later in Amritsar, we were visiting a Hindu temple when two of the men working there presented us with marigold leis and asked us to wear them. They told us it was because we were VIP guests. We felt really awkward wearing the leis because they were the same type that the people use to decorate the statues of their gods and goddesses. We took them off as soon as we could. Then a few minutes later we were walking outside of the temple and a couple came up to us and handed us their baby. “Here! Hold for photo,” they said. A baby and flowers! Not being treated like a celebrity might be another hard adjustment for us when we return home next year. 😉
Along with the friendly Indian people, the delicious food was another thing to love. We learned to eat by only using our right hand. And we even learned to cook some of the food in a class I convinced Bryan to take with me. Indian dishes just have so much flavor – masala dosas, paneer butter masala with chapattis, and the various vegetarian Thali dishes were among some of our favorites. We only ate meat a couple of times during our 5 weeks in India and didn’t miss it. Although Bryan occasionally lusted after the holy cows and talked about wanting a steak from Texas Roadhouse. The meals are largely vegetable-based. Obviously, Hindus don’t eat beef because cows are considered holy, but many Hindus are vegetarians. Some Jains won’t even eat potatoes or other vegetables from the ground because insects or other living things may be harmed during the harvesting. Along with the incredible food, Indian has the BEST tea (Masala Chai) I’ve ever had. One of the best ways to relax in India is to sit in a rooftop restaurant and enjoy a delicious chai and a spectacular view. The city of Jodhpur had my favorite view (both day and night) with its enormous fort, grand palace, periwinkle blue homes, and other sights.
We didn’t have a chance to visit the beaches of Southern India (we figure we’ll see plenty of beaches in Southeast Asia). But we did visit the Himalayas in Northern India. Our motivation was to experience Tibetan culture. The city of McLeod Ganj, India is often referred to as “Little Tibet” because of the large amount of Tibetan refugees that make it their home after fleeing Tibet. McLeod is also home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Tibet is a topic that I could spend hours writing about but this blog is already too long. However, I will tell you that spending five days in this region, meeting Tibetan refugees, and learning the details of Tibet’s persecution under the Chinese government was truly sobering and eye-opening. The area is filled with Tibetan refugees who risked their lives to cross the Himalayas by foot to escape. Some were shot, others lost limbs or died due to frostbite. The Chinese are destroying their homeland and culture in unimaginable ways. Since 2009, a recorded 123 Tibetans (many monks) have set themselves on fire in an act called self- immolation to protest the Chinese domination in Tibet. Despite all of these horrors, it was comforting to see that the Tibetan refugees could practice the religion of their choice and honor many of their other customs in McLeod Ganj. We felt fortunate to experience some of their culture. And by the way, Tibetan food is also delicious. We became huge fans of momos (Tibetan dumplings with a variety of different fillings).
McLeod Ganj was much more relaxed than many other spots in India. We enjoyed the laid back atmosphere and fresh mountain air before we hit the tourist trail of India. Many tourists come to India and only visit the touristy cities such as the “Golden Triangle” (Agra, Delhi, and Jaipur). If you choose to do this, don’t expect to have a very good time and don’t plan to see the real India. The touristy cities of Agra, Khajuraho, and Varanasi weren’t our favorite spots in India but they were definitely worth a day’s visit. Agra is home to the Taj Mahal, which does not disappoint. Its symmetry and detail are so perfect and pure. Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in the 1630’s in honor of his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died while giving birth to their 14th child. They are both buried in a tomb underneath the Taj.
The city of Khajuraho is home to the infamous “Kama Sutra Temples.” There are dozens of temples built over 1,000 years ago covered from top to bottom and inside and out with intricate carvings, many of which have figures in extremely erotic positions.
The city of Varanasi is like no other place we have seen, or probably will ever see. It’s the holy city for Hindus because of the Ganges River. The Hindus worship the river as a living goddess. They believe that if one dies in Varanasi they will escape the cycle of rebirth and go to Nirvana. The Ganges is lined with nearly 100 ghats (steps leading down to the river) where people come to worship, bathe, shave, do their laundry, brush their teeth, wash their water buffalo, and the list goes on. There are also cremation ghats where the deceased are submerged in the river before they are cremated and their ashes scattered in the Ganges. The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Just to put things into perspective, it has 3000 times the acceptable limit of faecal coliform to even be able to safely bathe in it.
We thought we’d seen enough dead bodies after Varanasi. As we were leaving a random train station to board a bus to the India-Nepal border, we met up with some travel companions near the exit of the station. They were standing next to a woman that I thought was asleep, but upon a closer look she was covered in flies and clearly deceased. The weirdest part was that the station staff was just sweeping around her as if nothing was wrong.
So we continued on our way and boarded the local bus. It was really crowded and I was sitting in an aisle seat. There were lots of men standing in the aisle with their butts pressed against me and right at my face level. And then it happened. The man who had his backside against me farted . . . right in my face. And I lost it. “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!?” I yelled. The guy looked at me half embarrassed, half proud and exited the bus. A young local guy who clearly understood English and what had happened was laughing hysterically. Bryan tried to calm me down and assured me I’d made it five weeks in India with no breakdowns – there was no reason to lose it now. “But that’s just insane! That guy farted in my face on purpose!” I told him. “So a guy farting on you is insane, but a dead body at a train station isn’t?” he asked. Touché, Bryan. By the way, I included this story not because it’s representative of India (that could have happened anywhere), but because ridiculous things always happen to me and I thought you’d enjoy a laugh.
We truly enjoyed our time in India but after awhile the crowds and pollution start to get tiresome. We were ready to leave India and spend the next few weeks trekking through the Himalayan Mountains. It seemed like a good time to get some fresh air (free of smog and bus farts). We thought after our train and bus journey to the border things would calm down, but the crazy part of our journey to Kathmandu, Nepal was still to come.