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Published: December 12th 2007
Wow, where to begin? Well, I must say that this part of my trip has been a roller coaster of mixed emotion and sensory overload. I had prepared myself mentally for the culture shock and I can say that it didn’t faze me too bad. I’ve seen so much over the past two years that I don’t even think it’s possible to be that shocked any more, although, if any country could do it, then India is the place. This country will definitely challenge even the most seasoned of travelers.
My flight arrived in New Delhi later in the day, so the hungry, flesh-eating taxi drivers had already been fed. I did get a little taste of the local traffic though. I spent one and half hours battling through traffic that looked like Atlanta’s rush hour on crack. Four lanes fit six, cars that is, and then there were the hundreds of motorcycles slipping through where ever possible. At this point in my travels, I am pretty much numb to crazy traffic. It amuses me more than it worries me. I find it fascinating how skilled but insanely reckless each driver is. I will definitely be giving a giant bear
hug to the first traffic cop I see when I arrive back home. They make all of the difference in the world.
The thing about India is that it hits you from all directions and completely overloads the senses. The noises, smells, colors, and tastes are all overwhelming. Horns never cease blowing and vendors continually yammer into your ear. The aroma from street foods blends together with the smells of diesel, rickshaw exhausts, urine from the exposed street latrines along the road, animal waste and the heaps of trash throughout the city. Your eyes can’t help but be pulled in every direction by the herds of people, vehicles and animals continually passing. A plethora of bright colored clothing shocks your pupils into a trance. And finally, there are the spices that make up nearly ever dish. One bite can literally burn off ever taste bud. Even the mildest of curries can bring beads of sweat rolling down your face.
This country has a culture that takes some time to get used to. Having the second largest population in the world (1.1 billion…that’s Billion!), ensures that you’ll get a big taste of it no matter where you go. Unlike
China (1.3 billion), India’s population is more congested and right there in your face so don’t forget. It is nearly impossible to escape the madness for even a brief moment to catch your breath. This country can have you loving it and then hating it all in a matter of minutes. You will find some of the rudest people you’ve ever met, but then come across the nicest just around the corner. This country can definitely throw your emotions in a whirl.
I know in my last entry, I came down on the US a little hard, but I was more frustrated with what I am seeing in the media more than anything. Plus, a lot of the stuff I’m seeing around the world tends to get to me now and then. I love my country and it hurts me to hear others around the world always talking down about us. It is something I hear directly or indirectly on a regular basis. It has definitely eased up a little since the beginning of my travels in 2006, but I do still hear about Bush’s faults and the mistakes of the Iraq war quite often (I’ve become almost immune
to it). Yeah, our country has made some big mistakes over the past years, but that shouldn’t erase the fact that our country has given so much to others all around the world and continues to do so. You rarely hear in the media about all of the amazing work being done and lives changed in the process. A lot of the civilians in these Third-world countries only hear of and focus on our mistakes and on my second day in India, I got to hear all about it (just wait and hear).
One of the most annoying and distasteful things about India is the constant scamming and lying to tourists to get their money. I’ve never in my life been lied to as much as I have been in the past week. The scams here are more methodical and aggressive than any place I’ve seen. Many times when you hop in a rickshaw (aka Tuk Tuk) and ask to go to a particular place, the driver will first take you to a shop, where he receives a commission for bringing you there. Even when you tell them to take you straight to a place and stress how serious
you are, they will many times take you anyway, hoping that you will change your mind. If you ask for a ticket price or the price of anything for that matter, you will always get told a higher one. People will offer you help with directions for example and then tell you that you owe them money. They will tell you that there are no ATMs in the area and that you have to use there money exchange. They will tell you anything you want to hear to get you to use their services, even if it is an obvious lie. I could go on and on with stories of people trying to rip me off, but I’m going to just tell you my favorite (actually my least favorite).
On my second day in Delhi, I went to visit the famous Red Fort and the Jama Masjid (the largest Muslim mosque in India). After being cheated by the rickshaw driver to get there, I decided to walk all the way back, even if it took a few hours. On my journey back to my hotel (located in Pahargan), I pasted the train station and decided to go ahead and
purchase my train ticket to Agra (home to the Taj Mahal). The station was a madhouse of locals with lines stretching to the street. As I stood there amongst the chaos and tried to figure out which line was for Agra, I was approached by an elderly gentleman in a train station uniform who offered me some assistance. He informed that tourist could get ticket information at the back of one of the booths instead of standing in the local’s line. Trusting him because he wore the station uniform and because he seemed like a friendly old man, I followed him to the back and talked to another friendly gentlemen standing inside the back door of the information booth (right beside the people working there). He informed me that I had to purchase my ticket at the Tourism office down the street on Block “N.” He then told me to use the rickshaw service and only let them charge 10 Indian Rupees ($1 = 39 Rs) for the ride. The man in uniform escorted me to the rickshaw, told the guy to take me to the tourism office and then said to only charge me 10 rupees (how nice of
him). The driver then drove about 6 or 7 blocks away (in the opposite direction of my hotel) and dropped me at this little shop that said International Tourism Office. Inside, I sat behind a desk and discussed my travel plans with the tourism agent. He informed me that all of the trains to Agra were booked full until the 12th of December (6 days away) and that I would have to rent a driver or changes my plans. Not being a complete idiot, I questioned the validity of the train being full and then asked why I wouldn’t just book a bus instead, because renting a driver is super expensive and something I’d never do. The guy started to get a little more aggressive, saying that he could probably get me on a bus for around 500 rupees, but they were booked full for two days. This is when I finally called him out for feeding me false information, because I knew that there were numerous buses running all day and that they only cost around 80 rupees; not five hundred. After his lie was exposed, he became very hostile. The man started yelling that Americans were arrogant, rude
people and that he hated everything about them. He said that Bush was evil and that Americans were a plague on the world. Then he commented to his three friends behind me in Hindi so I couldn’t understand and then continued on and on. I sat there, blood boiling, and simply waited for him to stop for a breath, when he finally did; I stood and totally blew up on the guy. It wasn’t pretty. The owner of the establishment had to rush over and escort me out of the building. Scared that I would call the Tourism police and get his business in trouble, he apologized for the behavior of his employee and told me where to go to try and get a train ticket. So, to make a long story short, I walked to the real ticket office and booked a train for the next morning to Agra, which was only 79 rupees and totally open for passengers. This episode taught me two things: never trust anything you hear in India and that I have a lot of work to do on my temper.
Two of my biggest flaws (and there are many), are my pride and
temper. I am aware of these weaknesses and continually pray for the strength to overcome them. I have gotten much better over the years, but I still have a lot of work to do. India has definitely tried me and my temper won on several occasions.
The next morning at the train station, I arrived at 5am instead of 6am because I’d forgotten to reset my watch. This meant that I had two hours to sit in the dark station and wait for my train. One thing I must mention about the culture of India is the local’s tendency to stare. This isn’t just a simple stare and move on, but a full fledge stand and stare, tap their friend and get them staring too type of deal. I have found this to be one of the more odd things about the culture, that and the fact that men hold hands a lot (I saw this in Kenya and Nepal as well). When ever I pass through a crowd, the eyes turn and fixate on me. Some give a friendly smile, but most just stand and stare with no expression at all. That morning at the station, I was
the only foreigner, which meant that I got all of the attention. I tried to read, but felt the constant gaze of eyes burning through my head. I sat and thought about how I had exploded the day before and I prayed for God to help me with my aggression. Then, minutes later, I noticed a man standing in the shadows staring at me. Slowly, the man (whose head was mostly covered by a cloth) moved closer and crouched down beside me. I stopped my reading and asked if there was something that I could help him with. Then man replied, “Are you a Christian?” I told him “yes” and a smile grew on his face. The man introduced himself as Habel and informed me that he is a preacher at a church of thirty. He asked if I could pray for him and his family. I told him that I would love to and asked him to sit and join me. We sat and talked until my train had arrived. That morning I was feeling low and frustrated. That was until Habel walked over and brightened up my day. It was only something very simple, but it put a
smile back on my face.
After arriving in Agra, I found a rickshaw driver and negotiated a price for the entire day. There were a lot of sites to see and I didn’t want to fight over the price at each stop. It was Friday and the Taj Mahal was closed for the day, but I had plenty of other stuff to see. I visited the Agra Fort, Baby Taj, Yamuna River and watched the sun set behind the Taj Mahal. The sunset was the highlight of my day. My driver took me to an excellent spot behind the Taj where I rode a camel and watched the sun set by the river.
The following morning, I woke before the sun and walked from my hotel toward the Taj Mahal. The desk clerk at the hotel told me the way to the temple the night before. I soon found myself on a dark and dreary road walking past the homeless huddled around small fires. As I made my way closer to the temple, the sounds of Islamic prayers began to echo from the load speakers of the surrounding mosques. It was kind of creepy, but at the same
time, pretty cool.
The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shahjahan as a memorial to his beloved wife Mumtaj Mahal. It is one of the “Seven Wonders of the World” and such a beauty to behold through the morning fog. As the sun slowly began to rise over the horizon, the massive dome began to take on color. The crowds of tourists rolled in as thick as the fog and soon the grounds were covered. I made my way into the main structure where the tomb of Mumtaj Mahal lies and listened as voices echoed through the dome’s acoustic design. It was not as large as I had thought it to be, but much more beautiful than I had imagined. Everything is made of white marble with intricate designs craved in, filled with shells and precious stones. It truly is a structure of splendor that captures and immortalizes one man’s love.
While I was wondering around the grounds, clicking away like a man possessed, a Russian woman by the name of Victoria came over and began talking to me. She saw that I was alone and asked if she could join me for some conversation. After much talk
and breakfast, we decided to travel together for awhile, because India would be much easier to explore with a little back up.
Victoria (or simply Vika) was born in Kiev, Ukraine, but moved to the Arctic Circle region of Russia when she was very young. She is 41 years old and works in the Media/Tele Comm industry in London. Vika is in India for one month and then heads back to the UK to start a new job. One could say that our travel budgets were in a whole different universe (my hotel was 300 rupees/night while hers was 2500rs). I had already booked a bus to the neighboring city of Jaipur that left in a few hours, but Vika asked me to stay and tour more of Agra, and that she would book us on a train that night sitting in first class. I was glad I stayed because we visited two of the sites that I didn’t get to see the prior day: Sikandra (Emperor Akbar’s Tomb) and the inside of Itmad-Ud-Daulah (Baby Taj).
The city of Jaipur (aka “the Pink City”) was another large and chaotic city. Our attempts to get a rickshaw to take
us to our hotel (after 12pm) proved to be one the craziest times I’ve ever had trying to leave a station. Being that we were the only two foreigners around, the rickshaw drivers nearly got into a fight with each other trying to win us over. The two of us stood there, deliriously tired and laughing, as a group of three drivers insulted and argued with three other drivers who returned the insults. I think we kind of provoked the fighting by making them compete for the lower fare and questioning who was more reliable, but it sure was entertaining.
Fast forwarding through Jaipur, so I don’t drag this entry out too long, we spent the day site-seeing through the Pink City (all of the buildings are the same rosy pink color), visiting a Hindu temple (where they made me cover my head with a cloth to enter), climbing the Hawa Mahal tower (to get an overview of the city), touring a gem shop (to get Vika’s shopping fix), and some floating castle in the center of some lake (I can’t remember everything…give me some slack). Half of Jaipur’s population is Muslim, which meant that five times during the
day the mosques blared Islamic prayers over the load speakers and the Muslims would bow and face northwest toward Mecca. I forgot to mention that around 13 percent of India’s population is Muslim, which makes it the third largest Islamic populated country in the world.
Later that evening, we booked a bus to Pushkar and headed westward toward the Pakistan border. I must add that when trying to book the bus to Pushkar, the rickshaw driver took us to a travel agency instead of the ticket office, just like they did in Delhi. I ripped into them as soon as I saw that they were stopping at the wrong place and told them that I’d better see buses or they weren’t seeing a cent. I got my way and Vika was there to keep me cooled down. She has actually been great at helping me keep my head. I have only told you a very small portion of the scams we have encountered. I have never seen anything like it.
The city of Pushkar turned out to be a hidden gem. The town is small, relaxing and has a neat little atmosphere steeped in culture. This Hindu
pilgrimage town is meat free, alcohol free and sits next to a lake (or maybe it’s a mirage…I don’t know) on the border of the Rajasthan desert region. It is home to one of the world’s few Brahma temples. We liked the place so much that we decided to stay a few days. We sat and ate meals on many of the different roof-top restaurants around the lake that offered amazing views. Pushkar Lake is surrounded by temples and stairs leading down to the water’s edge. Cows, monkeys, doves, and dogs can be found all around the lake. I was nearly attacked by a monkey while getting a close-up picture for you all to enjoy…so, you’re welcome.
At our meals, Vika told me stories of life in Mother Russia. There were two stories in particular that I found very interesting and I’d like to share. The first was a story about her father and his first time to swim in the Atlantic Ocean. Vika’s father was a cadet in the navy and was stationed aboard a Russian submarine in the 1960’s. The mission of his sub was to guard (along with three others) the Nuclear submarine that was fully
armed and sitting in the Atlantic Ocean during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her father exclaimed that Americans don’t realize how close they came to a nuclear launch. The other story I really liked was about Vika’s close friend who was married to the son of Valentin Berezhkov, the former interpreter to Stalin and former Russian Ambassador in the United States. Vika had spent a lot of time talking with Berezhkov and he had told her a story about when he was translating at a conference that both Stalin and Winston Churchill attended. During the conference, Churchill’s assistant passed him a note. Churchill read the note, wrote down a response and returned the letter. After reading the note, Churchill’s assistant crumbled up the note and tossed it into the trash. Later on, when the conference was over, a group of them dug through the trash cans and finally found the paper. The note between Churchill and his assistant read: “Sir, your fly is open.” And Churchill responded, “Don’t you worry my son, an old eagle is not going to fall out of his nest.”
One thing I found very surprising about Vika, was that I was the first Christian that
she had ever met. She seemed fascinated at the fact that I believed everything in the Bible. Being that she was raised as an atheist, made for some real interesting conversations. We debated and joked, but neither of us budged; she never believed a single word I said. Besides debating about religion, she taught me their most popular card game Durak (which I skunked her at) and even taught some Russian words to use while playing. I must say that it is nice to have someone to travel with for a while. I could use the company and it sure makes things a lot easier. Plus, she has persuaded me to eat at nicer restaurants and stay at better hotels, which has made things much more comfortable.
Well, that was a brief run down of the past week. Things have been crazy and my chances to write have been few. We are now even closer to the Thar Desert and the Pakistan border. It is really starting to look like the Middle East around here. I’m going to have to buy a turban to fit in. Up next, if all goes as planned, is a Camel trek into the
sands that occupy both India and Pakistan. The temps are cool right now, so it should make for a comfortable journey through the desert. Then I’ll be moving south, where I’ll try and figure out a nice place to spend Christmas and New Years. I hate that won’t be able to see everyone during the holidays, but I will be thinking of you all. Take care and I’ll write you soon.
Note: I almost forgot to tell you about my encounter with the gypsies. While walking through the streets of Pushkar, a group of young gypsy girls grabbed mine and Vika's hands and pulled us to the side. Before I knew it, the girls were squirting some kind of goo on my hand. Soon I discovered that the substance was going to stain a tattoo on my hand and not come off for about three or four weeks (that's nice to know now that they already did it). But, they did inform me that it helps with my Karma...so I guess that's a plus. OK...that's all it got...later!
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