Namaste! Put this one aside for a rainy weekend, folks, because India was a deeply affecting experience for me and I have a lot to say about it.
The India story starts with my complete and utter angst about the country prior to traveling there, as any of the poor souls who were in Africa with me can verify. I never wanted to go to India in the first place; sometimes with a round-the-world or consolidator fare ticket certain gateway cities come up without having been requested, and this was the case with Delhi. Since I had to at least change planes there, I figured I would stay a while. First it was going to be a week, then I heard that Delhi was a shithole and a week wasn’t long enough to get out and about, so I changed it to a month. Then I began reading about India and became terrified. I tortured myself every night with tales of the harassment of single women, the pervasiveness of thieves and touts, the pollution, the chaos, the filth. I changed my stay to two weeks. I complained to everyone I knew. I considered canceling altogether, but it felt too cowardly. I guess if you had asked me at the time why I was forcing myself to go there, I would have said something to the effect that I wanted to have a genuine experience of culture shock, and India seemed the best place to get it. In this, I was not disappointed.
I flew to Delhi from Nairobi on January 12th, and after everything I had read about the difficulties of touts at the airport and taxis that overcharge you and refuse to bring you where you want to go, things went pretty smoothly at first. My taxi driver took me to a government tourist office where they called around to find me a cheap hotel, since it is high season in Delhi and many places were booked. The first thing you notice when you drive through Delhi, or any other place in India for that matter, is the incredible lack of any traffic rules and the resulting madhouse on the streets. There are no lanes, and while there is a general custom of driving on the left side of the road most of the time, cars swerve constantly all over the road, like pinballs on a collision course, avoiding last-minute crashes with oncoming traffic, cycle rickshaws, pedestrians, cows, pigs, donkeys, water buffalo, and anything else that moves. If there were a traffic manual of any sort, it would read, “honk your horn when you are turning. Honk your horn when you are thinking of turning. Honk your horn when you will not be turning. Honk your horn to pass people, for people to pass you, and to tell people not to pass you. Honk your horn to alert the world to your existence. Honk your horn at least once every three or four seconds.” The trucks even say “horn please,” painted on the tailgate. It is deafening. There are animals everywhere, stray animals, apparently owned by no one. A pig is eating garbage at the side of the road, a donkey lies on the sidewalk at a street corner, a pack of stray dogs runs by. Cows wander into the path of traffic, conditioned over many years to know that you will not run them over, since killing a cow is punishable by law. There is garbage everywhere; India is a filthy place, with no sanitation standards, open sewers running alongside roads, and no such thing as a garbage can anywhere. I was instantly overwhelmed, even though I had read about this many times. The poverty is striking; the dilapidated shacks and vendor stalls that make up a commercial district, the squalid tenements of residential neighborhoods, where families of five or ten people live in one dirt-floored small room. Beggars, lepers and sick children bang on the windows of the car whenever you stop, holding their hands out for money or food. It occurs to you that this is what a country with a billion people, with an average annual income per family of $438 US, looks like. Your first instinct is to go back to the airport and get the hell out.
When I got to my hotel that first day, I opened my backpack to discover that someone had ripped though it, looking for something to steal. It must have happened while I was booking the hotel. They had either been interrupted in the act or found that I had nothing worth stealing. But this clinched it for me; if such a thing could happen while I was in a government tourist office, then traveling around on my own and taking buses and trains was never going to be safe. Feeling like a wimp, I went back to the government tourist office and let them book my entire first week for me, including upper-mid-range hotels and a private driver. It was much more than I had intended to spend, but it was still extremely inexpensive by American standards. In the end, I didn’t regret it. I saw much more in two weeks with a driver than I would have if I was traveling on buses and figuring everything out for myself. Also, buses have a habit of overturning, especially in the mountains, and are considered very unsafe.
On my first day, I had a tour of Delhi with an older driver who did not speak much English, but who was sensitive to my new arrival jitters and did all the hand holding I needed. We visited the Indira Ghandi museum, where the bloodstained, bullet-riddled clothes she was wearing when she was assassinated are ghoulishly displayed, and we drove through the Gate of India, the magnificent President’s House, and the various Parliament and other governmental buildings. We visited the Qutib Minar, the oldest Muslim monument in the city, built in 1199, and several Hindu and Sikh temples where I learned appropriate customs for visiting temples of each faith; when to take off my shoes, when to cover my head, whether to donate money, whether to bow as I entered. I am not an architecture buff but the buildings I saw were incredible, especially the Hindu temples, which were elaborately decorated and filled with colorful representations of some of the six million gods and goddesses of the Hindu faith. Wherever I went, crowds of Indian tourists stared at me, and many asked to have their pictures taken with me. When I asked my guide why, he said many were from villages where they did not see Western tourists. Later, when I spent the weekend with a brunette friend, I discovered that blonde hair had more to do with it than white skin. I got twice as much attention as my friend, even from the touts and vendors. I knew I should have dyed my hair back to its natural color before this trip, damnit.
On the second day, I checked out of my dirty and depressing little hotel and left town with my new driver, Sxre. Sxre was a Hindu, and he had a little statue of Shiva, god of destruction, on the dashboard of his car. He was not married, and I never knew how old he was because as I later discovered, all men told me they were 36 as soon as they heard that I was 36. I never figured out if this was a pick-up line, or a matter of being polite. I mention these details because they are very important parts of the conversation when you first meet someone in India. I was always asked the same two questions by anyone I met: was I married, and how old was I? The fact that I was 36 and unmarried usually provoked surprised laughter from anyone I met. I learned that if I didn’t laugh with them, I was liable to start getting a complex about my marital status. In fact, I think I got a complex anyway. I left Australia feeling my age, and I left India feeling my marital status. Good thing I’m not going to the Middle East, I could come home with a complex about my gender too.
Anyway, Sxre’s English was minimal and his accent was thick, and we really could not communicate. But the saving grace was that he thought everything was very funny, so we laughed our way through the next three days. We went first to Jaipur, the capital city of the state of Rajasthan, where I was deeply impressed with the majesty of maharaja palaces and forts from the Mughal period in Indian history (about 1550 to 1700). The city was surrounded by a huge stone wall, which rose and fell with the hills and was dotted with old military forts. In the center of Jaipur was the famous Pink City, in which all of the buildings had been painted pink in 1856 to honor the visit of Prince Albert. My favorite place was the Amber Fort, built in 1592 by Raja Man Singh, and containing an amazing labyrinth of secret chambers, balconies and corridors that were constructed so the emperor could visit his 12 wives and 350 concubines without any of the women knowing about it. I also enjoyed the Jantar Mantar, the largest stone observatory in the world. The streets of Jaipur were just as filthy, crowded and crazy as Delhi, but sometimes that was overshadowed by the majesty of the temples, palaces and monuments. Or maybe I was just getting used to filth already. I stayed that night at a hotel called the Shapura House, an elegant little converted palace with marble floors and four-poster beds and a sitar player sitting cross-legged on velvet cushions in the dining room.
On the next day, we headed for Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. On the way we stopped at a bird sanctuary, where I walked through marsh area with a guide who pointed out many of the park’s 400 species of birds, including woodpeckers, kingfishers, and many types of crane, duck, heron, etc. I also saw a huge python. Outside of Agra we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, an old abandoned city that was once a capital of the Mughal empire, and where there were the worst touts I saw in all of India. In most tourist places, I would be descended upon by a crowd of aggressive touts and vendors whenever I got out of the car, people wanting to give me a rickshaw ride or be my tour guide or sell me a postcard, but usually a few persistent “no thank you’s” and a brisk pace would shake them off. At Fatephur Sikri, however, they followed me, and after a while even began to call me names. I lost my temper and shouted at everyone to get away from me.
One of the most moving things I saw was also just outside of Agra: dancing bears on the side of the road. There were ten or fifteen of them, each harnessed and leashed to a trainer. Sxre said that if I paid twenty rupees, the trainer would make them do tricks for me. We stopped in front of one bear, and I was instantly sorry. What followed was pitiful to watch. The trainer made the bear dance, lie down, spin around, and make various human gestures, all with a tortured, pinched expression on its face. If you have ever read the John Irving novel Setting Free the Bears, this is what that book is about. I never understood it until now. The trainer, wanting more money, chased me back to the car when I gave him the agreed upon 20 rupees, and I had to slam the door in his face. I shouted, “Let them go!” out the window at the other trainers we passed after that, which sent Sxre into his usual hysterical giggles.
After spending a night in Agra, which is another filthy shithole of a city, I visited several monuments including the Taj Mahal. If you are ever in India, don’t let anyone tell you that pictures of the Taj will suffice. There is no substitute for seeing it in person, and when I caught my first sight of the monument I had to sit down for a minute because it was so beautiful. For any of you who don’t know the sad story of the Taj, it was built by the Mughal Shah Jahan to honor his favorite wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child after 17 years of marriage. Construction began in 1632, but by the time it was finished in 1653, one of Jahan’s sons had overthrown him and locked him up in Agra Fort, where he finished his days staring out the window at his monument to love.
For my last evening with Sxre, I had invited him to have a beer with me. Now, a word about alcohol in India. It took me a long time, stupid as I am, to figure out just how scandalous it is for a woman to drink alcohol in some parts of India, and especially to drink alcohol in public with a man who is not her husband. Even the startled laughter from the porter in my Delhi hotel after I asked him to bring me a beer did not seem to clue me in. What followed my invitation to Sxre was a long, embarrassing and confusing scene in which I finally understood that the manager of my hotel had overheard us and now we would have to drink in the car, as there was nowhere else we could go. Bars are very few in the state of Uttar Pradesch, and I could not go to one of them without creating a scandal anyway. In some places, alcohol is even illegal.
Good lord. Lest you wonder why I should deem alcohol so important, let me emphasize that India is a very uncomfortable place for a woman traveling alone, and a glass of wine in the evenings would really have helped with the jitters. There is a common conception that any woman traveling alone, particularly an American, must be looking for sex. Of course, why didn’t I think of that? Next time I’m hard up, I guess I know what to do. But seriously, this perception has largely been created by Hollywood, and you cannot argue anyone out of it. It is not considered rude to stare in India, and crowds of men stared at me wherever I went. To stare back, meet someone’s gaze, or even smile can be taken as a come-on. I learned to walk with my head down and to ignore anyone who tried to strike up a conversation with me on the street.
My next destination was the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, and as it was very far away, Sxre was dropping me off and I was taking a train. I traveled overnight in a second-class sleeper car, and there I met Nicholas and Nadine. They were both from Paris, but they had just met each other on the plane coming over. They were headed to Bodh Gaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage site, where the Dalai Llama was to be for two weeks, giving lectures and initiating visitors and Tibetan monks. On the way to Bodh Gaya, they were making a few sightseeing stops, including Varanasi. Since I had a driver from a local tourism office picking me up at the train station, I invited them to join me, and they arranged to go with me on my one-day tour of Varanasi. This turned out to be a good move on my part; Nadine was a devout Buddhist and was not interested in much else but getting to Bodh Gaya, but Nicholas was a student of all religions and was perfectly happy to spend the next 24 hours educating me on everything we saw.
Our tour of Varanasi included Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s first sermon (“Sermon in Deer Park”), where we walked around a stupa (a circular Buddhist monument of sorts) in circles with a bunch of Tibetan Llamas who would stop to prostrate themselves right in front of you and make you trip and fall if you weren’t paying attention. Then we toured several Hindu temples in the city, and finally went to the Ganga River, which was what I had come to see. Hindus believe that if they bathe in the Ganga River, which is considered a Hindu god in and of itself, it will bestow the benefits of many sacrifices to the gods. They also believe that if you die in the holy city of Varanasi, you will automatically be released from the cycle of reincarnation, which is the goal of any Hindu. On the way to see the Ganga, we walked through dirt alleys filled with shops selling the silks Varanasi is so famous for, and I got run over by a cycle rickshaw, cutting my leg and ripping my clothes. Good thing I had that tetanus shot. When we reached the river we were rowed up and down in a small wooden boat, the better to see all of the ghats. Ghats are sets of stairs leading down into the river, and each of the twenty or thirty ghats on this stretch of the Ganga has a different name and a different significance for the Hindus who bathed in their underwear there. Water buffaloes, goats, sadhus (Hindu holy men) and devotees wandered the ghats in a chaotic mass, and we bought little flower boats from people to float in the river and honor the gods. One ghat had an expanse of smooth slanted concrete on which was chalked a huge drawing of a jet plane hitting a tall building. No one could tell me if it was a celebration of September 11th or a memorial, but I think it was a sympathetic representation. Then the boatman let us out at Manikarnika Ghat, where the cremations are performed. We climbed the steps of a hospice, where old and sick Hindus sat on the floor waiting to die, and we watched from a balcony as they carried bodies down to the river, wrapped in brightly colored tapestries and decorated with flowers. The bodies were dipped in the river, and then placed on the ground, piled with wood, and lit on fire. A man hoping for guide tips from us explained that it took three hours to burn each body. Nadine became upset after a while, as you could clearly see the bodies once the tapestries had burned away, but I found it all strangely calming. After all, in Hindu belief these were the lucky ones, those who could be cremated on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Those who could not afford cremation were simply dumped in the river, and other tourists had told me that sometimes you could see bodies floating by during your boat trip.
Nicolas and I were both fascinated with the experience of the Ganga and we insisted on coming back that evening to watch the arati, a ceremony that takes place on the ghats every evening with much chanting and singing and the floating of many little flower boats on the river. Then we had dinner at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the ghats. I was disappointed to have to say goodbye to Nicolas and Nadine that night, but they were leaving for Bodh Gaya the next morning, and I could not join them as I had to catch a train back to Delhi the next day to meet a friend.
While in Africa last month I had met a woman my age named Jackie, who was born in Iran but raised primarily in the States, and who now lived in London, doing internal audits for United Technologies. Jackie was being sent to Delhi for two months to audit UTC’s India office, and she had invited me to join her for any weekends we might be able to coordinate. I went back to Delhi and stayed with her at the Sheraton, where she had her own butler on the concierge floor who even gave my little mattress on the floor turn-down service every night. I saw a very different side of life in India that weekend and began to understand what I had read about the incredible gap between the rich and the poor. With another co-worker of Jackie’s named Aaron, a young guy from Connecticut, we toured around the wealthier parts of Delhi, shopping for souvenirs and visiting a designer couture shop where Jackie was having some clothes made. We also visited some temples and monuments that I hadn’t seen on my earlier Delhi tour, and Jackie was able to add a lot to my history lesson by linking them to the Iranian civilization of the 16th and 17th centuries, which had been part of the Mughal empire. In the evenings, we ate at very expensive restaurants where no one thought it was scandalous if I ordered a drink, thank god. Even expensive restaurants in India are cheap, however; a meal at Bukhara’s, the most exclusive restaurant in Delhi, cost about 1500 rupees for three of us, which is about $30.
For my second week in India, I had decided to strike a compromise between safety concerns and budget concerns. I booked a driver again in order to avoid the buses which were the only other way to get to the mountain destinations I had in mind. But I didn’t allow the tourism office to book hotels for me this time, figuring I could save a lot of money finding my own places, especially since the hill stations I was planning to visit were in their off-season. My new driver was Javed, a married man, Muslim, (and 36 years old, of course) who had been set up with his own business and his own cars by a wealthy friend in Brazil, and occasionally worked on contract for the tourism office. Javed spoke good English, and after we got through the usual formalities, we got along famously. (The usual formalities, in case you’re wondering, consist of the following four steps: 1. Admit to being 36 and unmarried, and have a good laugh about that. 2. Answer a barrage of questions about why I am not married, whether I ever intend to get married, how many boyfriends I have had, and why I did not marry any of them. 3. Painfully and uncomfortably, establish the fact that just because I am unmarried and traveling alone does not mean I am a loose American woman who will sleep with my driver, but: 4. Also establish the fact that just because I will not sleep with my driver does not mean that I have to sit in the back of the car and be called Madam.)
I told Javed that I had spent too much money on drivers already, and that I needed to be on a strict budget. He took me seriously. For the next week, we ate in dhabas, which are little roadside food stands where the locals eat. They are usually very dirty and very primitive looking, and never have four walls, which makes them cold places to eat in the winter. But the food is fresh and delicious, and I learned a lot of new Indian dishes and really enjoyed the experience. In fact, I think I will miss Indian food everywhere else I go. Javed also took me to budget hotels and negotiated with them to get prices even lower. They never had hot water, so I was without a shower for most of the week, but I saved a lot of money and didn’t really care.
We drove first to Manali in the state of Himachel Pradesch. Manali is a Himalayan village very popular with Indian honeymooners, especially since Kashmir has become too dangerous to vacation in. It was a twelve-hour drive, and a gorgeous one. I loved Manali and spent two days trekking there. People were friendlier, and you could chat with men on the street without worrying that they would get the wrong idea. There were no touts, and even the rickshaw drivers would politely back off once you said you preferred to walk. The only problem with Manali was that it was freezing, literally, and the hotels did not have heat. I woke up my first morning to find that I could see my breath in my hotel room and my bedside water bottle had ice in it. It must have been miserable for Javed, who did not have a zero-degree Northface sleeping bag like I did.
Next, we went back to Uttar Pradesch, to the Hindu holy cities of Hardiwar and Rishiskesh. They were similar to Varanasi in that they were situated on the Ganga and had ghats for bathing, but they were much less intense. Rishikesh is known as a place where Westerners go to visit ashrams, places to learn yoga and meditation, and the Beatles had spent some time there in the ’60’s, along with other Western celebrities like Mia Farrow. I had originally hoped to visit an ashram myself, but there was no time, as most require a minimum stay of one week. We stayed one night in Rishikesh and then visited Corbett Tiger Reserve and National Park, where I did a safari on the back of an elephant. I didn’t see any tigers, but I saw many species of deer and wild boar, and let me tell you, an elephant is a far superior safari vehicle to a jeep. We stayed in a very rustic dorm room in a camp in the park that night, and I met a family of wealthy Indian doctors who had children living and studying in the States.
At the end of the week, we visited a couple of places that had been suggested by Javed and were not on my original list. He had asked me if I wanted to see what life in India was really like, and I did. We went first to Nainital, the lakeside hill station town where Javed had grown up, and after an afternoon of trekking on my own, Javed took me to visit some of his family. We followed a winding path down the mountainside and went from house to house for about four hours that evening, and everywhere we went, I was treated like royalty and served tea and various foods. Most people did not speak English, but Javed would translate enough so that we could at least laugh about my age and marital status, and I could attempt to explain why on earth I would want to be traveling alone. In one home I met a woman who had just been married the previous week, and everyone was still talking about it. It had been a “love marriage,” which is still fairly unusual in India; most marriages are arranged by the parents. I was very uncomfortable at first; I didn’t know what to say, what to do, how to express appreciation, whether to offer gifts or money. After a while, the sheer warmth and welcoming attitude of the people I met smoothed over my discomfort. The “houses” I visited were mainly small concrete shacks, with one or two rooms, sometimes with dirt floors. The only furniture was usually a string bed, on which my hosts would spread a tapestry and invite me to sit. None of the homes were heated, and often a tray of hot coals or burning kindling would be brought in and we would huddle around it. Interestingly, no matter how primitive the house and furniture, most of them had TV’s. There were a few exceptions, however, like the one where we found the entire family of four sitting on the kitchen floor, huddled around a bowl of rice. The “kitchen” was a closet-sized room with nothing but a gas burner on the floor. At another one-roomed house, I kept hearing a rustling noise under a table covered with a tapestry, and after a while I discovered a baby goat tied up underneath. It was explained that the goat was dinner, not a pet. At Javed’s brother’s house, we were invited for dinner and to spend the night. I declined to spend the night, hoping I was not offending anyone, but I knew they would insist on offering me their bed and then would sleep on the floor themselves, and I couldn’t stomach the thought. But I stayed for dinner, egg curry and rice, which I ate sitting cross-legged on the master bed with Javed and his brother, while the women ate sitting on the floor in the kitchen. Apparently as a visitor I was accorded the status of men. This house was quite luxurious compared to the others, and had three rooms plus a kitchen, a pet cat, and a TV, phone and DVD player. The DVD player was a shock. Javed’s nieces proudly played Indian music videos for me.
The next day, we went to a small city called Haldwani, where Javed was born, a city which never saw tourists. It was probably the dirtiest place I had seen. We visited more friends and family, and these people were clearly very poor. At one home, a woman lived in one dirt-floored room with nine children. Nonetheless, she insisted I kick off my shoes and sit on the clean sheet she spread on her bed, and she served us tea and rice pudding. Javed explained to me that I would seriously hurt people’s feelings if I refused food, so I ate everything that was offered to me, and most of it was very good.
Our last stop that day was in a rural village called Shabad, where relatives of Javed’s mother lived. Although he had seen some of them in Delhi in recent years, he had not visited the village for 12 years, and they were angry with him. I did not need to understand Hindi to recognize that he was being scolded for the first half-hour of our visit. This was truly a place that had never seen Westerners and I was regarded with nothing less than absolute fascination. We went from house to house, followed by an entourage that I think must have been the entire village population. Crowds of children stared at me, some with smiles and others with looks of fear, and many wanted to touch my hair. A crazy old woman put her hand on my head and blessed me. We sat in courtyard after courtyard, outside primitive brick and mud huts, surrounded by roosters and goats and cows. I was served no less than ten cups of tea, and many sweets I had only read about, such as milk cake, halava, and barfi. Everything was very good, but at one point I told Javed that if he couldn’t get me out of eating the beef stew one aunt was pressing on me, I was in danger of getting sick from overeating. Most of the homes we visited were Muslim, and the women wore black veils. Just when I thought I was beginning to understand all the customs of a visit to a Muslim home, a Hindu family saw me on the roof of an aunt’s house and asked that I be brought over, and I had to start asking Javed questions again. Some of the Hindu customs of hospitality were different, and the food they served me was also different. This family surrounded me in wonder and then dressed up a baby boy in a sweatsuit with an American slogan on it and took my picture with him.
It was very difficult for Javed to get away, and after we had been given heaps of freshly cut sugarcane and made to promise that I would come back and stay for four days next time, we finally escaped. I was pretty quiet on the way back to Delhi, overwhelmed by what I had seen. Before saying goodbye to Javed back in Delhi, I gave him $100 US, a huge amount by Indian standards, and asked that he give some of it to the friends and relatives I had met. He politely declined the money at first but agreed to take it when I said it was for others and not just for him. He asked me to keep in touch and come back to visit again, and then he dropped me at the Sheraton where I spent my last night in India with Jackie again.
Whew! If you actually read all of this, I’m impressed. I am in Kathmandu now, and my next newsletter will be from the Nepal and Bhutan Himalaya in about a month. I hope to make good on my nickname here by trekking the Annapurna circuit, if all the mountain passes are open.