Heather, Natalie and I decided it was time to explore some more of India and we figured why not head to Jaipur for the Elephant Festival and Holi Festival. In order to accommodate the festivals, I left the volunteer project nearly a week early and have arranged to return at the end of the month before leaving the country.
Jaipur (March 6-11)
The girls and I spent a total of five days in Jaipur. On day two, we went to the Elephant Festival. The festival consisted of a parade of exquisitely painted elephants adorned with brightly colored scarves/fabrics hanging from their husks and pierced ears, large bangles around their ankles, beautiful headdresses and intricate quilts draped over their backs. There were six elaborately decorated elephants competing for best dressed while others were available for elephant rides. This event had attracted the most tourists we have seen in weeks. We even unexpectedly ran into several other IVHQ volunteers that we had met over the course of the past weeks.
The Holi Festival far exceeded my expectations (and not necessarily in a good way). I imagined a giant water fight with clouds of powdered colour flying through the
Holi Festival- Jaipur
Matt, Brian, Daniel and Jake (most colour has already been washed off).
air. What a great way to celebrate the coming of spring! Could it really be that good clean fun we had when we were kids? Not a chance! Of course, Holi turned out to be much more "hands on" than that. So as we were covered with more and more color the “brisking” of our breasts seemed less accidental/coincidental and must more purposeful. As we walked the streets, men would cross the street or pull over on their motorcycles for the opportunity to rub color on us (some more respectful than others). We may even have been the cause of an accident as we believe that a car that had cut off a motorcycle was probably crossing the lane to get to our side of the road to apply colour on us (no one appeared to be seriously injured). Coloured powder in our hair, in our ears, in our bras, etc. We were absolutely covered! So what is the most logical thing for three female "foreigners" to do in a situation like this? You might think it would be best to return to the hotel and hide out but we are too much of thrill seekers for that 😉 (or
too stupid). Instead, we became determined to find other tourists (preferably men) so that as we walked down the street they could act as a barrier between us and the locals. So we owe a big thank you to our four American friends (Brian, Matt, Daniel, and Jake) that rescued us from the chaos that is Holi. Nobody had warned us that local women don't participate in the Holi festivities and some female tourists informed us that they had been told in advance to be aware. Ironically, Holi was held on the same day as International Women's day.
The rest of our time in Jaipur consisted of the typical touristy stuff: shopping at the bizarres, visiting the Monkey Temple, Hawa Mahal, City Palace, and Jantar Mantar.
Goal: Try travelling on my own.
Pushkar (March 11-14)
After Jaipur, Heather and Natalie returned to Faridabad and I ventured on as a solo traveller. I felt a great sense of satisfaction following two successful bus rides on local transport. Upon arrival, I booked a room, embraced my new found confidence, and set out to explore. I anticipated some relaxation in a holy town surrounded by a sacred lake; however,
my first outing was anything but. I had to fight back tears of frustration as I was bombarded by local tourists asking to take my photo, my hand was being grabbed to apply henna, and I was pulled to the lake by a priest for blessings. The priest applied a red dot on my forehead, pushed flowers into my hands to toss into the sacred waters, and prayed in Hindi for the wealth and happiness of my family before asking me to “donate” 1000 Rs ($20.00) to the God’s on behalf of each member to ensure that they are fed for the next year. Ahhhh!!!!!! Fortunately, I remembered reading something in the Lonely Planet about a scam where fake priests collect money from unsuspecting tourists in exchange for prayers. After all, who could deny the wellbeing of their families? I gave 100 Rs (In my mind a “donation” means I get to choose the price) and walked away. Overwhelmed, I returned to my hotel to look for flights to Goa. I needed to get out of here fast! I wanted to be surrounded by many tourists on a hot, calm beach as far away from this chaos as possible. However,
Me and my camel named Michael Jackson
a flight to Goa proved to be an unrealistic option on my limited budget.
After a brief cool down period in my room I overheard some tourists that were just arriving. I strategically left my room when they were walking past so that I would have the opportunity to say hi and to ask if I could tag along with them. The girls were from Sweden and named Asa and Hanna. I spent the next few days shopping, eating meals, and hiking to the top of a hill to visit a temple with these kind young women. At the top of the hill I met a Belgium man named Mokrane who would later become my travel partner. Suddenly, I noticed that I was much more relaxed and even caught myself smiling as I walked through the streets of Pushkar. Could I actually be enjoying myself? The shop owners seemed friendly and not as pushy, the streets felt less crowded, the sounds much quieter. Was Pushkar like this the whole time? Was it my state of mind that made this place seem so overwhelming my first day or did I have more confidence now that I had friends to spend
Trying to stay warm during the night in the desert.
my time with? Is it possible to change my opinion so drastically in such a short time? Goal- Try to remain patient and open minded to give each place a chance to grow on me.
Udaipur (March 14-16)
After finding my comfort zone in Pushkar, my tight schedule pushed me onward to Udaipur. Upon arriving I was feeling down. There I was alone again and everything was starting to look the same. The same shops, the same souvenirs, the same food, the same annoying traffic, the same smells, etc. I wanted the challenge of travelling alone to see if I could do it. Now that I have proven to myself that, “I CAN do it”, I am left wondering, “Do I WANT to?” Why am I putting myself through this? It’s not as fun experiencing things on my own and India has proven to be a much more challenging place to meet other travellers than other countries I have visited. The accommodation is so affordable here that traveller’s opt for private rooms instead of shared dorm rooms and the food is cheap enough that people eat out at restaurants instead of staying in to cook in communal kitchens
(which are not available even if you wanted to).
The next morning a note had been slipped under my door by Mokrane (the man from the hill). He had noticed my name above his in the guest registry book and asked me to meet for chai if interested. We spent the next couple of days together visiting the City Palace, the zoo, and the Monsoon Palace. The trek up to the Palace was a long one and we were graced with the presence of a Scottish woman named Angie. Angie has been travelling for the past two years and I instantly admired her enthusiasm when she interacted with the locals. I couldn’t understand where this energy could be coming from? Isn’t she getting bored or tired after all of her travels? I can admit, at this time, that India had started to take its toll on me and I was getting tired, some might even consider me a bit negative. I decided that I wanted to be more like Angie. Goal: Try to be more positive.
Jodhpur (March 17)
I only spent one night and one day in Jodhpur which was just enough time to visit the clock tower and the Mehrangarh Fort. I can be honest and tell you that all of these attractions have about as much meaning and significance to me as I am sure they do to you (in other words, not much).
Jasailmer (March 18-21)
Finally, the moment I have been waiting for. I have been heading west in anticipation of desert sand dunes, camels, sunsets, and sleeping under the stars. Sounds kind of romantic doesn’t it? The song from the Aladdin movie got stuck in my head, "A whole new world, a dazzling place I never knew, I'm like a shooting star, I have come so far, let me share this whole new world with you". Well, let’s just say that a camel ride before settling at a nice quiet spot amongst beautiful golden sand dunes as the sun set into a dark star filled sky should not necessarily be defined as romantic. Afterall, I have never been so happy to have a little extra flesh on my butt and thighs as I was being rubbed and chaffed in some very uncomfortable places. Also, as the night grew cold, I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and tried to ignore the fact that huge black beetles were scurrying around me on the sand (I even covered my ears with a head band to ensure that no beetles would try to make a home in my head). And then I worried that snakes or scorpions may come out of hiding when I scrambled to find an outdoor toilet in the darkness. As the night rolled on, I watched the big dipper move across the sky and listened to the sweetest sounds of camels farting and tourists snoring. Although the camel safari may not be defined as a “romantic” experience it certainly was a fun one! The safari guides did a great job of preparing our meals and I got to sit around the fire in the evening with a great group of tourists! Thanks everyone!
I spent my remaining time wandering around town. I did try to approach everything and everyone with a much more energetic/positive attitude and I feel it was well received. I stopped and chatted to some locals and was even offered a couple tours around the city on the back of motorcycles (which I politely declined for fear of my life). Shopping was more pleasant once I stopped overanalyzing about what I wanted to purchase and gave up on trying finding the lowest price. After all, why get frustrated and waste my energy bartering for to save another 20 rupees ($0.40)? Jaisalmer ended up being one of my favorite cities in the state of Rajasthan. Lesson: A positive approach results in more positive interactions and experiences.
Rishikesh (March 24-28)
Reunited with my roomies (Heather and Natalie), the three of us head to Rishikesh which prides itself as the “Yoga Capital of The World”. After arriving late, we went to eat at a cafe that was arranged with pillows and cushions on the floor and short tables. Men and women sat cross legged around the tables with perfect posture. After weeks spent in cozy ashrams and hours spent practicing yoga/meditation these people looked genuinely happy on their journey to find the perfect balance between mind and body. I found myself being slightly annoyed by a group of women sitting next to us as they enthusiastically looked up the energetic qualities/healing properties of the gem stones they had just purchased in there Crystal Bibles. I thought to myself, “These people are SO naïve. They have NO idea what the "real" India is all about! They have clearly been living in a bubble; eating their steamed vegetables/salads (that would not be available where we live), breathing in the fresh air, and enjoying the calm and quiet”. I realized that I was feeling a bit jealous that my India experience had not brought me the same level of peace and satisfaction. Over the course of the next few days I had the opportunity to indulge in delicious food from menus that catered to home sick westerners, dip my feet in the cool, sacred waters of the Ganges River, shop for last minute items that I didn’t necessarily need, and attend a beginner yoga class with a very encouraging/inspiring yoga master. Heather and I went for a trek in the mountains to a water fall while Natalie went white water rafting. "What is that? Could that be the sound of silence?" Wow! I had forgotten what that sounded like. Ah....breathe in…breathe out. This place is great! In the evenings, we sat with friends from around the world and sang along as guitars were passed from one talented artist to another. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and definitely could have stayed longer and explored the whole yoga/meditation thing further. So as I returned from Rishikesh I left with a smile across my face and a big "thank you" in my heart for opening MY eyes to another side of the "real" India. I realized that there is a lot that India has to offer and that, because this country is so vast and diverse, it may be necessary for me to return one day to explore it further.
My biggest fear of traveling alone on this trip was just that, being ALONE. I replayed the worst case scenario over and over in my head as I tried to mentally prepare myself for what could be uncomfortable and possibly terrifying moments during my trip. I imagined standing on a street corner with no sense of direction, no idea where I needed to go or how to get there. I worried about street signs written in characters that I couldn't recognize and people looking at me with confusion as I asked for help in a language that they could not understand. My biggest fear was being LOST in an unfamiliar place with the only people knowing or caring about my existence being half a world away and just as helpless as I. Lucky for me; I have gained a new confidence that I, in fact, am never alone. During the moments that I have felt that I needed someone, a stranger has turned a corner, been waiting at the top of a mountain, or sitting next to me on the bus/train, etc. Even with a language barrier, help has been offered with even the smallest gestures, ie: a nod of the head assuring me that I am getting off at the right train/bus stop, offering snacks/sweets/chai during a long bus/train journey, watching out for my luggage as I slept on the train, translating the directions to my tuk tuk driver, inviting me to join for a meal or a day of touring, etc. Don't get me wrong, it hasn't been easy, and there have been lots of moments that I have felt manipulated or taken advantage of, but when I really NEEDED someone they were there, as if God had planned for someone to be on the same path at the same time. So I hope for all of you, during those moments when you feel helpless and alone, that you can raise your head and recognize a small gesture of hope such as a smile or a finger in the right direction.
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