Shannon and I spent almost a full month exploring India. We started in the far North, seeing Rishilkesh, McLeod Gang – home of the Dali Lama and Armristar’s Golden Temple. Next we visited the famous Golden Triangle, and the holy city of Varanasi. Finally we moved south and spent five days seeing Fort Chochi and cruising through the Kerela back waters.
We had an amazing time. India is full of so many sights, sounds, colors…its really overwhelming the best way possible.
As always, there were a few things that stood about my experience in the country that I thought were worth sharing. Here are my thoughts on India:
I assumed, that hardened from the endless sellers and street performers of Morocco and the reverencing requests for Bakeesh in Egypt, I would be prepared for any cajoling touts I encountered in India. Needless to say, I realized pretty soon after our plane touched down in Delhi that I was wrong. The harassment was never-ending. From the moment I flagged a rikshaw at the airport I felt like a hunted woman. It wasn’t just the throng of drivers offering to take us to our destination or more likely their “brother’s hotel.” Once we choose a driver and went through the stress of haggling down to a reasonable price we would without a doubt be required to go through the same conversation:
“where you from?”
“Ahh, America. Obama”
“How many days in India?”
“About two weeks. It’s very nice here”
“Yes. How many days in [Current City]“
“Oh about three days.”
“Oh then you must see [random site or market]“
“Yes, we will tomorrow”
“Okay, I take you there now.”
“no no, please just the hotel”
“Okay, hotel after [site]
“No – just the hotel”
“okay, tomorrow tour. I’ll take you to [long list of sites]. Just 600 INS.”
“No, we don’t know what we are doing tomorrow”
“okay, I take you now.”
“No, please the hotel now. No tour”
This would go one for the entire ride with us trying to convince the driver to take us to the original destination he had agreed on. Every trip from the train station, ever journey to a restaurant or famous site always involved us fending off offers of tours, shopping and other diversions.
In many cases, the driver would tell us after a half hour ride that he didn’t know our destination, but that he knew another really good hotel, restaurant, or site that he could take us too. Other times, after dropping us off, the driver would lurk around our hotel for days trying to make us take the tours we had “promised.” Nothing we said or did seemed to convince them that we wouldn’t be taking a tour.
Things were only slightly better on the streets. Every person we passed or spoke too offered us things to buy, stores to visit and tours to take. Taxis, vendors and children would follow us down the streets begging for money or business. It was impossible to dissuade them.
Day after day after day in India, the constant touts wore on me. The same endless conversations, the please for money or attention that “No’s” and ignoring didn’t help. It was exhausting.
As I took a plane south to Kerala, relaxing in the calm, air-conditioned order of the plane a flight attendant passed by handing out waters. As she got to our row, the people seated behind us reached out and grabbed the waters from her and she continued on down the plane skipping Shannon and I. Whining, I said “what about us?” The Indian man beside me, who had been quietly reading a newspaper, reached out and got the flight attendants attention and handed us waters. Turning to me he imparted one bit of advice.
“You have to be a little bit aggressive in this part of the world.”
You’re telling me, brother.
Obviously, my patience wore thin. My normal tactics of smiles and “No Thanks” soon turned to a constant silent grimace and (in my less proud moments) the occasional snap of “go away” or “No!”
No, my patience was nothing to write home about.
What surprised me more than anything else was the unrelenting patience of the Indian people. With us, with each other, with every frustrating and infuriating situation that would rattle the people of most nationalities.
In the few instances where I snapped a pushy tout I was met only with an apologetic smile and a amiable head bob. Never did they yell back or show the slightest sign of anger or resentment. It was the same in the streets. Day after day I watched cars, rickshaws, cars and pedestrians swarm the crowded lanes without any semblance of order or reason. People were cut off, horns blasted, pedestrians were sideswiped. But through it all, the India people kept their good natured smiles and seemingly never ending patience. No sign of the road rage I’m so familiar with in America.
Sure, in the endless lines to buy train tickets or board busses there was a competitive jostling for position and the occasional cutting, but people seemed almost cheerful about it. I never saw a single instance come to blows, never heard an exchange of harsh words. On crowded train compartments and walking through crowded, narrow alleys, I watched the people accommodate and help each other so that everyone had enough space for the journey. Even squeezed into small corners, pushed against several people and pressed by a mound of luggage, I saw Indian men stoically enjoy train journeys to far away destinations.
In a country of almost 1.2 billion people, I can’t help but think that this patience and tolerance for their fellow citizens is what keeps things ticking. Its what keeps everyone sane and happy in a country that drives even the most hardened but comparably less patient travelers crazy.
Monkeys and Cows and Dogs. Oh My.
I had heard that India was the land of the free roaming cow. That I would encounter meandering bovine just as soon as I would encounter a car on the busy city streets. So, while I was aware of what I would be facing, nothing prepares you for the reality. And its not just cows. Stray dogs and monkeys are just as ubiquitous as you walk through even the most packed city streets. It’s a shock for those of us from countries where our animals are kept leashed and fenced, but it’s not uncommon in India to see dogs wandering freely through restaurants and traffic jams caused by napping cows. Monkeys run across hotel terraces and cluster around gas station trash cans. You learn to remember that while a car might (MIGHT) stop for a pedestrian to cross, the cow next to it will most likely keep heading through the intersection.
The first time I viewed the sacred burning Ghats of Varanasi, I was most shocked to see a large black and white cow slowly nosing its way through the burning bodies. The men in charge of carrying to bodies to the river for washing, were forced to wait (bodies in hand) for the cow to finally trudge its way out of their path. None of them did anything to prod the cow along and it was free to continue its unhurried inspection of the cremations.
And obviously, with the cows and dogs comes the poop. Poop everywhere. On the busy public streets. In the narrow residential alleys. On the steps leading down the the holy Ganges. Especially on the steps down to the holy ganges.
It’s imposible not the step on it. The smell is everywhere. When it rains, the streets are slick with a mixture of manure and mud so rancid it can be smelled even as you eat at the nearby restaurants. You begin to understand why removing one’s shoes is such an important part of the Indian culture.
Even worse than the poop and the constant fear of an accidental cow crushing, is the suffering. With no shelter, little food and zero medical care, the city dogs are for the most part in rough shape. Thin, mangy creatures that sleep in garbage heaps and cower against walls hoping to avoid kicking. Dogs with poorly healed broken legs, limping along in crocked lines as people and rickshaws buzz past. Tiny puppies, huddles in groups already showing signs of infections and parasites. It’s heartbreaking to say the least.
Food heaven and food hell
India, has got to have the most delicious food in the entire world. Amazing curries, warm tasty flat breads, lassis to die for. In the first week I was there I literally could get enough. I felt like I was eating everything in site. I wanted to try everything. Ever amazing scent the drifted through the markets, every tasty thing that was offered in restaurants. Shannon and I were pretty much in a constant state of eating or waiting to eat every day.
I loved every second.
Then it happened. It being the never ending food poisoning. For two days I suffered. Fever, aches, cold sweets, sleepless nights and of course the non stop trips to the bathroom. Within two days I felt so weak I had trouble standing to leave the bathroom. I felt my head swim and my face felt flushed. At 3 am I lay on the bathroom floor waiting for the energy to get back to bed. Shannon had been in bad shape the day before but we feeling better. She woke up, noticed my absence and called my name. Feeling horrible, I dragged myself on hands in knees out of the bathroom. I’ve never felt worse.
The next day, we boarded an overnight bus down to Rishikesh. !3 hours through windy mountain roads in a bus with no toilets. It might have been hell.
Thirty minutes into the drive, I lurched forward and ran at the door. Shannon sensing my distress chased after me and banged on the drivers compartment trying to stop the bus. Luckily, I was able to climb off just in time to vomit into the bushes. As I headed back on the bus I could feel the hateful eyes of the rest of the passengers as they realized just how LONG this ride would be.
Two days later, in Jaipur, I was feeling much better with just a slightly weak stomach and finishing up my last dose of antibiotics. We were still cautious and had avoided street food and other questionable meals since our sickness. I had a dinner of fries and a veggie burger from the hotel restaurant and went to bed. Hours later, I was woken up by my angry stomach.
It was another night spent lying on the bathroom floor. Another night throwing up everything in my stomach and another exhausted morning where all I could do was lie in bed – no hope of seeing the sights I had come to see in the city.