Published: July 30th 2011July 25th 2011
Savannah airport, waiting for the journey to begin!
India is not an easy country to love. It is dirty, smelly, crowded, hot, and noisy. It's difficult to know who you can trust because many locals steer you in the wrong direction, toward hotels or shops where they will get commission. Animals that in the US are considered unclean roam the streets with the chaotic traffic, roves of pedestrians, and slumbering homeless. Sanitation and trash collection are virtually non-existent, leaving mountains of trash to build along roadsides, and people to brush their teeth in a river in which dead bodies are regularly dumped. In the US, our poverty is hidden from most of society. The homeless live in the woods along the rivers or in neighborhoods that the middle class rarely frequent. In India, the poverty is in your face. Stepping over bodies that you only hope are just sleeping is as common an obstacle as avoiding the shit and urine puddles (animal and human). The living conditions of the poor in India are jaw-dropping. A tarp held up by sticks in the ground. A tin roof perched on a hillside. The middle of a sidewalk. On top of a heap of garbage along the railroad tracks. Most do not
even have doors, just a sheet over the entrance...some don't even have that. Cows are considered holy in the Hindu religion and are therefore allowed to roam the streets at will. Stray dogs and goats also litter the roadways. And all this in country that is supposed to be a model for how a developing country can become a booming economy. Evidence of that prosperity is difficult to find in the thousands of haunting eyes that line the littered streets. India is intense, and as I said...not an easy country to love.
Now that I've given you the reasons not to love India, let me tell you why you should come here. If you're the kind of person who loves history, you gotta come to India. It's like stepping back in time. Men wear nothing but a sheet of fabric around their waist. Many people, men women and children, walk barefoot. Shoe repairmen sit on the sidewalks using old fashioned tools to repair well-worn sandals. Men can get a straight-shave under a tree. Blackouts are frequent, and if you happen to be out after dark as I was in Darjeeling, it is incredibly special to walk the streets lit
only by the candles of tiny shop keepers. If you are interested in religion, you gotta come to India. Particularly Varanasi, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Here, religion is intertwined with almost all daily activities. Hindus believe the Ganges is a holy river, and they use it for bathing, swimming, ceremonies, and burial. Religious pilgrims clothed in their orange robes are seen padding through the narrow alleys of the city, sometimes chanting, sometimes carrying bodies wrapped in white cloth to the burning ghat (steps along the Ganges) to be cremated. If you're the kind of person who loves adventure, you gotta come to India. You can climb the highest mountains in the world (or admire them from the lovely hill town of Darjeeling), cross the desert on a camel, and ride an elephant into the jungle in search of Bengal tigers. Safety standards are low in India, so just crossing the street, riding in a tuk-tuk, or hanging off the side of a train can be an adventure. Finally, if you're the kind of person who likes a challenge, you gotta come to India. It's not always tourist-friendly. In Delhi it was difficult to find even
a cafe or restaurant that was clean with a/c that could provide refuge from the heat. Locals are nice, but they usually have an agenda so you can't always trust their advice. And you always, always have to be prepared for the unexpected...you have to relax, walk with the flow, and just give a smile to the madness happening all around.
So here's what I've been up to the last couple weeks. Sean and I arrived in Delhi just after midnight on 7/16. We caught a few hours sleep at Hotel Kwality (no that's not a typo, the hotel was in the Paharganj area, cost $16 per night off expedia), then headed out for our first day in India. About 10 steps out of the hotel I uttered the phrase, "watch out sean you almost stepped in shit"...which we would come to repeat quite often. The area around our hotel was busy and crammed with hotels, shops, and food stands. The trash and dirt is piled up everywhere, with the occasional mouse scurrying across the tiny alleys. There are people everywhere...on foot, motorbike, cars, rickshaws (bike with a seat for 2 behind him), tuk tuks (3-wheeled autos with a
2 stroke engine...this is what Sean tells me), we saw men riding carts behind oxen, and people on bikes. Also, the smell. It hits you like a ton of bricks. Its an unmistakable aromatic mix of Indian spice, sewage, sweat, shit and urine. MMMM-mmm.
Then, out of the drone of a language I don't understand, a "Hello!" Then the inevitable 5 questions that we come to hear over and over, as if all Indians attended the same class to learn how to speak to a Westerner. It goes like this. "Hello! Where are you from? How long you been in India? How long do you stay here? Where do you go next? How do you get there?"...And all this is likely in an attempt to see if you need something, such as train tickets to your next city, a tuk tuk to a site in the city, or any other service that they are happy to show you...for a price :)
The women in particular are gorgeous. Most dress in colorful saris with lots of jewelery. The older men often have long beards, and although many are poor and wearing just rags they are somehow adorable peering up at me.
Beautiful temple that is open to all faiths. Built by members of the Bahai faith, a philosophy revolved around unversal peace, education for all, and elimination of prejudice.
Adolescent boys are often seen walking hand in hand. This is not a sign of homosexuality, but rather a sign of friendship. I see many sweet examples of close friendship that I absolutely love. Men sitting close together in deep conversation. Women walking arm in arm, laughing and gossiping. While romantic interactions are almost never seen in public, the friendship relationships are very endearing.
So in our first day we walked to Connaught Place, known for its government buildings and shopping. There is a nice park in the middle where we saw couples actually flirting and cuddling (this would be the only time we saw this romantic behavior). We then walked to India Gate. This 42-meter stone memorial arch pays tribute to around 90,000 Indian army soldiers who died in WWI, the Northwest Frontier operations and the 1919 Anglo-Afghan War. From there we hired a tuk tuk for Rp 100 (Rp 45= $1). We rested at the hotel after lunch, then went out late afternoon to see the Lotus Temple. Built in 1986 by people of the Bahai faith. This religion is similar to Hinduism and Buddhism, it preaches unity, equality and kindness. The temple is beautiful inside, it is
open to all faiths and you must remain silent inside. We took the Delhi metro train there and back...a pleasant surprise, I think its nicer than Chicago's El! Just completed 2 years ago, and was only Rp 18 one way.
On Sunday we walked to Old Delhi, a different world from the rest of the city. It is even more crowded and filled with throngs of bazaars. It's capped on the east by the Red Fort, constructed between 1638 and 1648 by Shah Jahan of the Mughal empire...the same man who built the Taj Mahal. Chondi Chawk Road runs west of the fort, the main road in Old Delhi crammed with shops, food stalls, and tiny streets snaking off the sides with more bazaars. To the south of Chondi Chawk is Jama Masjid mosque, India's largest mosque that can fit 25,000 people. We found relief from the noisy streets and heat on the shaded steps of the mosque as we waited for afternoon prayers to end so we could go inside. The mosque is perched on top of a hill, and it seems you can see all of Delhi from inside its pillars. A truly beautiful and spiritual place.
Barefoot entering Lotus Temple
Everyone must remove their shoes to enter the Lotus Temple. We weren't too excited about walking on the dirty, soggy ground, but when in India...
After walking the perimeter of the Red Fort, we walked south through a park and found the site where Gandhi is cremated. The surrounding park is very well maintained, and the site is marked with a simple black marble slab and an eternal fire. Across the park was the Gandhi Museum, containing an array of photos and stories about his life, as well as some of his belongings.
On Monday we grabbed a quick breakfast, had a stomp through the monsoon rain on our way back to the hotel, then later made it to the Delhi train station for our first Indian train ride to Agra. I was nervous about the train, I read that it was dirty and the stations were confusing. We purchased tickets ahead of time, and after quickly finding our train on the electronic board we easily located our platform. Not hard at all! We purchased a sleeper car which was air cooled...meaning no a/c. But there were fans overhead and once the train moved it was't too bad. There are bars on the window but we could still see well out to the countryside, a nice view along the 4 hour train ride. It
Delhi metro train
Delhi's metro train has separate ticket lines for men and women and even separate cars!
wasn't super clean, but not so dirty that I couldn't relax.
We arrived in Agra in the evening, got a tuk tuk ride into town, and decided to stay near the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. We chose a cheap guesthouse since we were only staying one night. We stayed at Shanti Lodge, a dilapidated room without a/c for only Rp400 (~9 USD). We did have a tiny view of the Taj out our tiny window! But power outages were frequent, and with only a fan to keep us cool the room was pretty rough. That said, getting up at 4:45am to see the Taj at sunrise wasn't too hard! If you ever visit the Taj, here's a tip...the ticket office is about 2km from the East Gate. A fact nobody informed us of before getting up that morning. So after sweating it up with our early morning hike to the ticket office, we finally made it into the Taj around 6am. The only word I can come up with is surreal. It truly is beautiful in person. A huge deal to see that in my lifetime!
Spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of Agra,
a small town mostly set up for tourists. But it's hot in Agra, maybe hotter than Delhi, so our overnight a/c train to Varanasi was a good relief! More on Varanasi and Darjeeling to come, along with pictures of the train and Taj Mahal.
There are more photos below