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Published: February 25th 2018
Cow in a doorway
Cows cows everywhere in Jaipur
Did you know that humans have more than 21 senses? Neither did I, until I spent a week in Delhi.
To properly gauge my travel sanity scale, I asked this German guy sitting next to me on the train out of Delhi what he thought of India so far. In an exasperated Elmer Fudd voice he said, "Unbewevable!"
He had no idea why I started laughing, and why I couldn't stop.
Elmer was right, Delhi was Unbewevable!
Now, I'd like to think I'm a pretty seasoned traveler, but Delhi, Delhi actually knocked the shit out of me. No, not literally.
Although, I did walk through an awful lot of poo. See assaulted sense #13.
My initial appalment was impossible to pin down. Was it the mental traffic? The incessant honking? How about the man having his morning constitutional right on the motorway? Or the toxic piles of garbage burning in the streets at early dawn? Was it the out-of-control cow situation? Or the relentless filth, pollution, chaos, inhumanity, crumbling infrastructure, mayhem?
Then there was the World Health Organization issuing a dire warning about the air quality in Delhi. It was 75 times the
The Money Shot
Never the same as seeing it in real life. Beautiful Taj Mahal.
acceptable level. What does that even mean?
As soon as I left the controlled environment of Delhi International airport, I fully understood. This is the land where If the Sun Refused to Shine
I prepared myself mentally for a whirlwind of insanity, no doubt coming my way.
I’m staying in the Karol Bagh district, in a hotel off an alleyway. From the façade, you'd never even know it was a hotel. To get here, my airport taxi was swallowed up by swarms of shoppers in a hysterical frenzy. I’m told plainly, it is wedding season. Pop up market tables are piled high with fake goods and textiles, blocking the road. It takes the driver, with a lot of honking and gesticulating, over an hour to navigate a city block. Senses #3 through #18 were thoroughly assaulted.
The hotel was fine, but their proclaimed restaurant was in a dank basement, I walked in on two very drunk Chinese businessmen, shirtless and halfway through a bottle of whisky. They pleaded with me to stay, join their party...and if I weren’t so sleep deprived I might have considered it, but instead I declined and backed out slowly. An
The school girls were ripping around the tombs, but would stop and pose perfectly, I couldn't resist them.
eager bellboy fetched me a street tandoori and a sneaky flask of rum to mix with cola. I don’t remember my head hitting the pillow.
As usual, everything always looks better after you sleep off your flight. I was a bit apprehensive about seeing Delhi, so I hired a driver and waited for him in the lobby. There were these three girls loitering, so of course I told them what I was doing and they were all super keen to tag along. Besides, I suspect they are all booked on my upcoming Rajasthan tour. I was right. We took on Delhi and went to India Gate, Humayun's tomb, Qutb Minar, and the Red Fort, zipping back and forth through wildly insane traffic jams. All of the attractions were a real history lesson and fascinatingly beautiful. And I am now featured in thousands of Indian family portraits and selfies.
My driver takes us to a trendy place for lunch because I wasn't quite ready to play street food roulette. We ate a lovely biranyi and aloo with some local college kids while we got to know each other. My new tour mates are friendly and fun, all experienced
Designed to look like a lotus, it was sunny and midday but the pollution made it look like a nuclear fallout.
travelers, an Australian that is on break from Uni, the Frenchie who had to explain her adorable UK Brighton accent, and the American who left her fiancé back home in Pennsylvania. They watch apprehensively as I agree to a $2 street henna, having heard the horror stories. It turns out, I'm the horror story because I smear mine before it dried, the pattern now resembling a large poo stain. Sense #1 offended over and over again as I try to scrub it off.
I’m fine with solo travel, but it always nice to have someone to share experiences with. I bonded best with the American I call Slyvania, she was super optimistic and down-to-earth, no matter what happened to us. We’d laugh hysterically because no one wanted a selfie with her but I’d be swarmed relentlessly. We went to the Lotus temple, and the national museum. I’d also strike out on my own, I got brave and endured the chaotic metro a few times. I’d drop in to a district just to walk around and take pictures. The smog was a thick blanket that blotted out the sun, but on the positive, it kept the temperatures mild. Crowds of
Our lovely balcony in Udaipur
Such a nice place to visit, a real Indian vibe
men would part to stare at me but never harassed minus a few street beggars. On the downside, the poverty was just heartbreaking. Off any roadway was a flickering glimpse into endless shanty camps and garbage dumps, snotty children and women wearing rags begging cars in the meridians, cows mindlessly plodding through crumbling traffic, packs of stray dogs shredding plastic bags and roaming with purpose.
The following evening, I met the rest of my Rajasthan tour group. 12 people from all over the world. Almost everyone self-reports never traveling before, Gah! So they all have that shell-shocked look as we navigate the insane streets of Karol Bagh, single file. I felt like I was in kindergarten. I awkwardly strike up conversations with the 3 Germans and the Swiss couple but, they prefer to natter away to each other German.
I had delayed seeing some parts of Old Delhi because I'd already paid for this organized tour. Disaster. Too many awkward tourists bunched together not knowing what to do, and of course, one of the Australians had their cell phone nicked at the subway station within minutes of us starting out.
Our young tour guide was freshly hired
Dog Day Afternoon
Poor wretched souls don't have it as good as the cows.
and clueless, I nicknamed her “Maada Murgee” which loosely translates into Mother Chicken
It came from watching her trying to keep her brood together while attempting to file a police report. It took hours. In the chaos of morning rush, she’d chase after a few of her chickens looking for a bathroom, then run the other way to catch her chickens going to find an ATM. Then back again because someone didn’t get a token. Then run back the other way to collect the confused male chickens left behind on the platform because us females boarded the women-only carriage. By the time we all got to Old Delhi, I was fuming.
We wandered around Chandni Chowk single file, which was stupid, and through a maze-way of alleys until we arrived at the Friday mosque called Jama Masjid, built by Shah Jahan, the same guy that constructed the Taj Mahal. It's the largest mosque in India, a colossal structure beautifully constructed out of red sandstone. I was impressed. The courtyard is flanked by flights of steps, all of which have religious significance. Too bad I didn’t learn why. We spent our time sitting on those steps waiting for Murgee
Am I the only one wearing a cloak?
Not sure why I had to don this, while the rest of India wore their own clothing but it was a windy way to experience the place
to find stray chickens or to go off to purchase tickets or something. We remove our shoes and found a willing shoe guard, and even though we are dressed conservatively, we are forced to don weird smocks that no one else is wearing to step through the gates of the royal entrance. The courtyard massively dwarfs anyone standing in the middle of it and can hold up to 25,000 devotees at a time. I expected we’d have a local guide explain the significance of the site, but Murgee is sheepish and it’s not clear if she forgot to hire one or he impatiently left after waiting for us. Instead she whisks us away, back out into the maze of rickshaw drivers and traffic.
Next up was the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib temple, which for me, had the biggest impact. I came here by myself a day ago and was so warmly welcomed by the Granthi and their assistants. We donned our head scarfs, and with our shoes removed wander in to sit through prayers. Back home, so many of my work colleagues are Sikh so I’ve been to enough temple weddings to know the ropes. The highlight, as I
We are gonna need some more Daal.
Vats of rice and daal prepared at the Sikh temple daily for the countries poor.
was saying, was preparing the midday langar, the free meal for the poor. Like yesterday, I sat with the ladies rolling out endless roti while gigantic vats of daal and rice were being prepared behind us. Some of our more seasoned travelers joined in, the rest just played strange.
Like clockwork, the unfortunate of Delhi file in, they smile warmly as I hand them a metal tray or help those with disablements to their seats. Frenchie and Sylvania follow my lead and we sit on the floor to eat with them. My heart glows and I give thanks as someone ladles a helping onto my tray. But some of our group refuse to eat the food offered.
This confuses Murgee and as we exited the temple, instead of just taking them somewhere for lunch, she lets 16 people decide. Gah.
Of course, arguments ensue as the rickshaw drivers swarm us trying to get our attention. I point out a busy luncheonette across the street that offers Indian sweets with a take away restaurant on the second floor, the rest of the group reluctantly follow.
Because the walking tour of Old Delhi was so poorly executed, some of
Murgee carefully navigates the cow doormat.
us defected midway. Murgee seems relieved to be down to a manageable 10. I am not going to let this tour ruin my India experience. The six of us girls wander around the old city sightseeing before taking the Metro back to the hotel. Later we stand with the locals and eat off metal trays in open air Thali eatery while the rest of the group went to a westernized restaurant. Sure, we got stared at, gawked at I suppose, but the food was cheap and tasty, so it was worth it. Besides, it was fun to try to order just to see what you’d get. I tried not to spontaneously combust.
And just like that, the next day we are leaving Delhi. And I did mentally breathe a sigh of relief,
not gonna lie.
On the train carriage, I sat down next to my tourmate Elmer Fudd and started to reflect, on what the hell just happened to me. Unbewevable!
Our tour of Rajasthan starts with a detour to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.
Murgee gets the platform wrong and we miss our train. We end up on the milk run that takes
I really enjoyed the look of the
twice as long as the Agra express. I’m fuming but drink Chai.
At some point during our six hour trip, I give myself a talking to and decide that from now on, I will assist Murgee to wrangle her charges. It’s not what I paid for, but if I don't, I’m not going to be able to cope with this disarray of confusion. The more experienced travelers agree to help out, and we become a cohesive team.
We disembark into the same chaos and fight our way to the Agra Fort. I’m herding the stragglers from behind. The gigantic red limestone walls are awe striking and inside, the beautiful pearl marble with inlay of flowers made of precious gems, now stolen, still really lovely. Here, an engaging local guide walks us through the grounds and shares the history, including the story of Shah Jahan being imprisoned by his own son, left to look out onto his own creation across the Yamuna river. The Taj Mahal is barely a murky silhouette through the thick pollution hanging in the air, it looks like a photo negative.
Murgee takes us to a reasonable touristy Mughal restaurant with live music and
The Poo Smear
Looked lovely going on, only to be ruined minutes later. Me and Mehndi do not mix.
ends up singing some Indian folk songs, redeeming herself. I’m fascinated by how she tries to come across all rebellious and cool. An Indian millennial with her Americanized tattoos and daredevil stories of skiing competitions in the Himalayas. Shrugs all around because I was pretty much the same as her at age twenty-three.
Dirt hangs in the night air and we playfully step over sleepy cows as we walk back to our hostel. Tomorrow we see the Taj Mahal. Wow, just wow.
No matter how many times you see the Taj Mahal in photos, seeing it in person is beyond stunning. That’s the point, isn’t it.
I feel lucky because UNESCO was threatening to cover it in scaffolding and mud until 2020, so I planned on calling my visit, “The Tragic Mahal.” No need. Again, our guide Murgee struggled to herd us, get tickets, and find the right entranceway. I scrum in to help distribute little booties and water, and sort us by gender so we can squeeze through the cattle paddock security lineup quicker. We spend the day exploring the massive white marble structure as it glows in the smoggy air.
Smiles everyone Smiles
Indian buses were pretty basic but easy to use, making the 5 hour trips in between cities interesting.
I’m not sure if I’m just getting used to the constant people chaos or if there is an actual ambiance of peace within these walls but, as the vibrant crowd seamlessly drifts through the grounds, it is as if I'm at a carnival with the sound muted. What a wonderful experience, and of course, I got the money shot.
On a side note, after my India trip was long finished, a work colleague saw my Taj Mahal photo I posted to Instagram, and quipped, “I was suffering from Delhi belly and I puked on the lawn right there in front of the Taj and then a dog came along and ate it.”
And I was like, Ah, India.
The next morning, we pile onto a public bus and head for the city of Jaipur. It was about 5 hours pressed against a broken window looking out onto a wasteland of dry farms and scrub land as the decrepit vehicle tries to catch a gear. Mangy dogs and mangy cows are everywhere. Oh dread, and I've contracted a miserable head cold from everyone else on the bus, hacks and sneezes all around.
The pink city
Mind the cow
I actually felt bad for the cows because they looked as though they wanted to interact, but everyone ignored them. When I did attempt an interaction, I almost got a horn embedded in my rib. Bad cow.
of Jaipur was pretty, and chaotic a little less. Or maybe I’m just getting used to the madness. We fly around in rickshaws over potholed streets exploring all the yellow hillside forts, as well as the Jal Mahal in the lake. I loved our little family run hostel and the red ripple façade of the Hawa Mahal. We also crammed in some textile and carpet manufacturers who politely fed us tea and treats even though we didn’t buy anything.
At dusk, Murgee attempts another march through the narrow marketplace and I am frustrated, this just doesn’t work with our huge crowd. We suggest she take us somewhere fun instead. She makes a phone call and we go to the Raj Mandir cinema to see a movie called “Golmaan Again!”
All the locals are yelling at the screen, hooting, booing, cheering and throwing things. It’s hysterical fun. There were no subtitles expectantly, but the three stooges theme was easy to follow so we boo and cheer and throw our popcorn too, much to the thrill of the audience.
Another day and another bumpy bus ride gets us to the town of Ajmer. With a quick jaunt through some hills
Turn the tables
Instead of everyone asking me to be in the selfie, I started taking pictures of them.
we arrive into the dustbowl oasis of Pushkar. Considered a scared city, Hindus and Sikhs pilgrimage here to bathe in the 52 Ghats that line the shores of Pushkar lake.
We’ve just missed their infamous annual Camel fair that sees the population explode by 200,000, although a few decorated stragglers were still being paraded around town.
Here in the ultra-conservative, sacred city, it was the first time I felt embarrassed by my own race. Not only was I constantly offered drugs by these Caucasian weirdos trying to look all hip and worldly but, they would be smoking beedies in a dark café with their dreadlocked hair propped up in trendy sunglasses, wearing frocks that make them look like they’ve been sleeping in the streets, yet the tags say Yves St. Laurent and Betsey Johnson. It was like they are all trying to recreate the novel Shantaram or something.
Exhausted from the dry heat and going in and out of temples all day, I struck up a conversation with a young street tout who brought me free chai in a little clay pot and tried to sell me a cheap ankle bracelet by insistent flirting. I scoffed
Can't resist the tables of left over diwali paints, missed the festival this year.
at his attempts, but his positivity was so infectious, even some of my group gathered. If you tell me your life story
, I said, you'll have a sale
. I nicknamed him Happy, as his face beamed behind his long stringy hair and watery blue eyes. His story was heartbreaking. The iGeneration girls of our group I call “the Delevingnes” were acting weird and I realized it was because he was a doppelganger for Jason Momoa. Anyways, he shares his harrowing street kid tales as we all listen in. This is one of those situations where this guy could be the next top model but due to his life circumstances, will never be more than a Afghanie street beggar, yet he is so upbeat and positive, and maybe a little high
because, as he says, he chooses to be.
There’s a lesson in there. Happy wouldn’t take my money as he ceremoniously put the chain around my ankle. And because I speak 18 fairly fluently, I had to drag the Delevingnes away before they could conjure up a rescue plan to bring their potential fiancé back to Australia to scare the parents.
I think I’m handling India pretty well
Cute little millennials with those fantastic eyebrows. Loved them.
For my first experience in this country with only 3 weeks in total, I think I was wise to spend most of it in Goa. Delhi was awful, but now that I've see some of Rajasthan, I'm slowly warming up to the idea of coming back.
But I’ll admit, this sacred cow situation it is completely out of control.
Cows are such beautiful, gentle animals in our green pastures at home, but these ones are eating plastic garbage bags and knowingly seem to be neglected while the world whizzes by. I feel sorry for them. We buy a few bales from the grass vendor ladies but it quickly turns into circus. Here in Pushkar, there isn’t enough room for cow and people to interact within these narrow alleyways, and one angry cow tries to impale me in the ribs. I have quick enough reflexes but I am left with a huge purple bruise, while another cow sticks his horn up a man’s backside as he attempts to walk by, his wife shrieks a warning too late. Lesson, don’t try to feed the cows.
Also, if I’m not stepping around their shit, I’m stepped over
Waiting out the sunset, these crazy things look like there are actually enjoying a chat.
“Babbacon” has ramped up here in Pushkar for the Camel festival. We unknowingly walk through Babba dwellings, aka the outdoors, as they go about their daily chores of laundry, lounging, bathing, sleeping, meditating, right on the sidewalks. Some put out a hand to implore, while others look stoned out of their gourds. All are hanging around waiting, for something. Not a bus, pretty sure of that
They offer us flowers as blessings but we are warned sternly by Murgee not to accept them or we will have to pay thousands of rupees to get out of some kind of religious agreement. It makes us all extra wary to interact with them and the locals. Someone will fall for this ruse in our group eventually, I predict.
At the Ghats, in the glorious afternoon smogshine, we witness thousands of Babbas taking a dip in the cesspool, or as they call it here, a lake. One of the Delevingnes shrieks in horror when she accidentally sees shriveled old bums as the Babbas descend naked into their sacred bathtub. Hard to have a coffee in a café and be witness to that.
Street kid hustle
Slum kids in Pushkar try to entertain us but really they were just trying to pickpocket us.
predicted, Murgee has to go rescue one of the Australians because they fell for the flower scam. Apparently, the one I call “Narnia” now owes 100,000 rupees to the local temple (something like $1500 usd) and there is a crowd brewing.
Nothing I can do, so I take off on my own and find an adorable mom & pop café on the edge of town called Nature’s Blessing. Since meat and eggs are strictly forbidden for consumption here, I enjoy a BBQ tofu and beet salad while the owner tells me about his life in Delhi as an accountant. He retired to Pushkar for the cleaner air. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the pollution here is one hundred percent worse.
Nights have that desert chill about them, our rooms are freezing and there is no warm showers or blankets. Thankfully I find my hoodie at the bottom of my backpack before we climb the 1000 steep stairs to the Savitri temple to have a steaming cup of chai, served up in dirty mugs. We waited, with some monkeys, for the sun to set as a cold wind howls. The views of Pushkar and the
Parade of Colour
So amazingly colourful all the Saris as we toured the Agra Fort. We must look so boring in our travel khakis.
surrounding valley glow in a bright smoggy orange. It was actually quite a beautiful, peaceful setting, minus the trash and mangy dogs.
Murgee finally rescues the Australian from her perils and takes us all out to meet a local family where they cook us a home style meal. We pile into their house and watch an Indian game show as they feed us a thali, which even though we requested mild, was nuclear hot. I managed to eat some but nibbled on poppadums and drank local soda to fill up.
To walk off the delicious dinner and warm up our bones, Sylvania, Frenchie, Narnia, Squeak the American, Marcy the Canadian, and the Delevingnes and I all decide to walk back to the hotel in the pitch black, we get halfway when we all realize how potentially dangerous it is with snakes and scorpions and lurking cows raiding the endless mounds of trash.
We go to Udaipur by public bus in the morning. I’ve read about this town and how it has a magical lakeside ambiance.
Pleasantly surprised, every nook and cranny of Udaipur was an adventure. I enjoyed going off on my own to explore the
My first time in India, quite a culture shock but I liked it.
twisting alleyways filled with bazaars selling things like silver jewelry, shoes, bags, leather goods and these crazy miniature paintings. I wasn’t buying. Or so I thought. Even I purchased a tunic, tailored perfectly while I waited for $6. Our hostel was an LSD induced nightmare with twisty narrow corridors I could never find my way out or in of. Amidst the shop browsing, I stumbled upon a Guru who read my palm. I also went with a few others to tour the grand lakeside Palace and then to the Shilpgram village to look at crafts from artisans and witness traditional dancers do their thing. Lastly, Slyvania, Frenchie, Squeak, Narnia, and the Canadians and I went out on a pontoon floaty boat onto the murky lake to get a few snaps of the sunlight as it bathed all the buildings in a twinkly golden hue. We were laughing when we compared notes and realized we all went to the same Guru. According to him, we all had the same identical fortune of finding love this year, having two sons, changing our careers, and living to the ripe age of 86. What a coincidence! Scoundrel. I want my $2 back. Ha
My favourite meal
In India, I enjoyed all the familiar dishes but in Pushkar the vegetarian meals were out of this world.
Somehow Murgee forgot to book us tickets for the night train to Mumbai. But I'll tell you about that later.
We sipped drinks on the rooftop bar where they filmed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
and took in the new trendiness ambiance of Udaipur. Murgee has taken a shine to me and questions me relentlessly about my life. She is a sweet girl but super young and devastatingly beautiful. However, I wouldn't trade her for all the tea in India for that worldly knowledge you have when you get to my age. Her lack of leadership abilities, not her fault. To her credit, no matter how many beers I fed her, she wouldn’t tell me about the bruise across the bridge of her nose that she desperately tried to cover with thick makeup. I suspect an abusive boyfriend but I can wait her out. We have a 17 hour train ride tomorrow.
So, India. What an incredible way to explore my 21 senses.
I never understood the fascination with this place, but I get it now.
If you've read any of my previous blogs, you'll know that organized tours have been a hit and
Annual Camel Fair
We had just missed the fair in Pushkar that sees thousands coming from all over to sell and buy camels. Quite a festive scene left over though.
miss for me over the years, and this one was definitely a disaster. What can I say, I'm the definition for insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.”
I look forward to being back on my own after exploring the city of Mumbai, ending up on a beach in Goa before I go back to snowy Canada. Namaste!
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