India . . . What can I say???
I tried with all my might to write about India as I went along, but I continued to be frustrated about not being able to express the true energy of four different cities in India, especially when I spent so little time in each. I have heard the saying many times that every city is so completely different in India that it should be its own continent rather than just a single country. Now, I understand it. I visited four cities, none more than a couple hours away by plane, but all so different that they could easily be different countries. When I returned to the ship last night, I heard about other people’s experiences in India and was exposed to the atmosphere of several other cities, all sounding completely unique. I don’t think that anyone would ever be able to experience everything that India has to offer, even if they had a lifetime. People say that you love or hate India. I love India. It is beautiful and warm and amazingly full or culture and history. Sometimes, there’s a lot of crap to get through to get to the heart, but if you are able to see through the haze, dirt, and garbage, you are in for the experience of a lifetime . . .
I’m going to try a haphazard approach to my journal entry, but I think that it fits the atmosphere of India perfectly. Like India itself, you will probably love or hate it.
I spent my first day in India exploring Chennai dubfoundedly and attending the Welcome Reception with Indian students. For the next four days, I had an SAS trip. I could sit here and spend ten pages and several hours detailing all the amazing things and monuments that I did and saw, but I don’t feel like the real India can be described in the typical narrative, at least not by me. For those of you who want to know exactly what I did in India, here is the itinerary for my trip right out of the SAS field program book:
This trip combines the bustling city of Delhi, the majesty of the Taj Mahal, and the “eternal city” of Varanasi, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India. Located on the banks of the sacred River Ganges, Varanasi is the holy city of the Hindus. Often called “the heartbeat of India”, it is the oldest inhabited city in the world. Varanasi has been a center of civilization and learning for over 2,000 years. Here you can observe the ritual bathing in the Ganges at dawn, a practice that has continued virtually unchanged over the centuries.
Day 1: Depart the ship for the Chenni airport and your 3 ½ hour flight to Varanasi via Delhi, arriving in Varanasi around 11:50. After check-in and lunch at the hotel, visit the ruins of the ancient city of Sarnath where the Budda preached his first sermon. Sarnath is as holy to Buddhists as Vranasi is to Hindus. See the stupa and ruins of an ancient monastery as well as the new Buddhist temple and the Archaeological Museum with its large collection of ancient art. Return to the hotel for dinner and overnight. An optional shopping trip, with your guide, is available.
Day 2: Depart the hotel before sunrise and drive to the banks of the River Ganes. Board a boat and sail along the river to witness a spectacle of religious practice that has continued unchanged over centuries. AT dawn, pilgrims converge at the holy waters for the ritual immersion and prayer to release their souls from the cycle of rebirth. This is one of the most memorable experiences of a visit to India. Continue on a city orientation and then depart for the airport and your flight to Delhi. Upon arrival in Delhi, enjoy some late afternoon sightseeing including visits to the Birla Temple and Sikh Gurdward. Proceed on a drive along the ceremonial avenue, Rajpath, past the War Memorial, Parliament House, Secretariat Building, and the official residence of the president of India. Continue to your hotel for dinner and overnight.
Following an early morning wake-up call, depart for the train station and your two-hour journey to Agra. Upon arrival, transfer to the hotel to freshen up before proceeding to Fatehpur Sikri, with its red sandstone palaces which are remarkably preserved. Return to Agra for lunch at the hotel and then visit the halls and palaces of Agra Fort and the fabled Taj Mahal where you will have the opportunity to view the Taj Mahal at dusk. Transfer to the railway station for your journey to Delhi and transfer to the hotel.
Day 4: Depart for the airport and your return flight to Chennai.
My sleep schedule
Bed Time – midnight
Day 2 – Wake-up call – 4 a.m.
Bed Time – 1 a.m.
Day 3 – Wake-up call – 4:30 a.m.
Bed Time – 1 a.m
Day 4 – Wake-up call – 4:00 a.m.
Bed Time – 4 a.m.
Day 5 – Wake-up call – 7:15 a.m.
Bed Time – 11 p.m.
Modernized Rickshaws – mini yellow vehicles; wheel in front; open sides; no doors; driver in small bench in front; fits two passengers in the small back bench; drivers allow you have as many passengers as will fit in the small back bench; I rode with four in the back bench; I saw ten locals crammed into one rickshaw; drivers zip in and out of traffic consisting of cows, goats, other rickshaws, buses, trucks, cars, motor bikes, regular bikes, and pedestrians; drivers especially like to play chicken with buses; one probably thinks they are about to die around a dozen times during a twenty minute rickshaw drive; the rickshaw driver will take you everywhere but where you want to go, especially if they will get a commission out of it; the rickshaw will never take you exactly where you want to go, the best you can hope for is to get close and walk; the driver will try to charge you at least double the price that you agreed upon
My First Rickshaw Experience
“You need ride. Come, come.”
“We want to go to a local outdoor market. No Shops.”
“Yes. Yes. Get in. Get in. Sit Madam. Sit. Market. Yes.
“You know where there is a local outdoor market? We don’t want to go to any shops.
“Yes. Sit down Madam.”
“30 rupees each.”
*starts driving and promptly stops at a gas station and gets gas without a word*
*back on the road*
“Good beach. You want to go to beach.”
“No, we just want to go to a local outdoor market.”
“Know good temple. Old Temple. You go to temple.”
“No, we just want to go to the market today.”
“What you look for? Silk? Sari? Bangles?”
“Yes, but we don’t want to go to any stores.”
“Temple big and very old.
“No, we just want to go to the market today.”
*Pull up to tourist shop filled with dozens of SAS kids and their rickshaw drivers. We go in out of curiosity. Nice stuff. Expensive. We don’t want to shop in a tourist shop. Come out without buying anything.*
“Ok. We do not want to go to anymore stores. We only want to go to a local outdoor market. No stores. If you take us to anymore stores, I’m not getting out.”
“Yes. Yes. Local market.”
“Yes. Yes. No more stores. Outdoor market. Outdoor vendors.”
“Ok. Ok Madame. Get in.
*arrive in parking lot of another tourist shop*
“No. I’m not going in. I already told you that we don’t have time. We only want to go to the local market.”
“That’s not a market. We want to go to an outdoor market. No more stores. No more stores.”
“Go in. Look.”
“No. We aren’t going into any more stores. Do you know where there is a local outdoor market or not? We want to go somewhere where people sell things in the street.”
*Finally we leave and take another long drive.”
“Madame. I stop at supermarket?”
“What? No. Do you know where the market is?”
*Arrive at crappy looking mall*
“Market there Madame. See, fruit market.” *Points to fruit stand down the street*
“That’s not a market.”
“Yes. Yes. Local fruit market. I walk you there.”
“No. No. Forget it. We’ll just pay and walk around here.”
*Hand driver 40 rupees each, 10 more than agreed upon even though he never took us where he said he would*
“No. No. One hundred and fifty rupees each.”
“No. You said thirty rupees each.”
“No. No. That is not possible. I get gas. Two American dollars each.”
“No. That’s not what you said and you didn’t even take us where we wanted to go.”
*Finally, I just place the money on the back seat (he won’t take it out of my hand) and leave. I feel a little heartless, but I also feel angry. I know that this is just how they do things here. I know that no matter what we would have done, he would have still tried to take us to tourist shops and he would have still tried to get more money out of us than agreed. I feel bad that he didn’t get the commissions that he would have liked, but I also didn’t get to the market. I can’t just sit there and let someone try to cheat me. I think that we acted more than fairly by overpaying him for his services even when he didn’t stand up to his part of the deal. Nice but firm. End of story.*
India in General
Burning curry mixed with garbage smell.
Flies. Mosquitoes. Big bugs everywhere.
Haze from pollution
Yellow rickshaws zipping everywhere
Motorcycles zipping everywhere
Horns beeping. Honk. Beep. Beep. Honk.
Brown cows, goats (some painted pink), and dogs roaming the streets
Women stitching flower pedals into garlands
Five lanes of traffic where there should be two
Men urinating against the walls
Whole families speeding by on one motor bike
Women dressed in beautiful, colorful saris
“800 rupees Madame. 800 rupees. Ok, 550 rupees. Special Price.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“300 rupees Madame. Pretty. Good quality.”
Stores squished together
“Ok. 150 rupees. Please Madame. I need money.”
“Come inside Madame. Looking is free.”
Open front stands with dozens of long strands of tobacco packets hanging from them
Stalls lining the streets selling fruit, plastic trinkets, tacky jewelry
Honk. Honk. Beep. Beep.
Vendors cooking food to sell on the side of the road
“100 rupees Madame. Good gift for mother, sister.”
Women sitting on mats with fruit to sell
Walls of people to move through
Flower garland hanging everywhere
Women with babies begging for money
Hawkers trying to sell cheap plastic items or necklaces
No white people
A “little” English
Children holding out their hand
“Give me another 50 rupees Madame, I give you two more. Please Madame. Just 50 rupees more. My family Madame.”
Baranasi (old name) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all them. – Mark Twain
“Varanasi, the city of Shiva, on the bank of the sacred Ganges, is one of the holiest places in India. Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in the waters of the Ganges, a ritual that washes away all sins. The city is an auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha – liberation from the cycle of birth and death. It’s a magical city where the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public on the city’s famous ghats.” (India Lonely Planet)
Five minutes into the bus ride from the airport to the hotel, I knew that I would fall in love with Varanasi. I was probably already in love. This was the India that I had come to see. It had all the things that Chennai had: dirt, pollution, rickshaws, garbage, hawkers, poverty, shops, local stalls, temples, mosquitoes, beggars, etc., but the ciaos was all on a smaller scale. There was less congestion, more space, fresher air, more moderate temperatures, and more obvious beauty and culture. For example, in contrast to the other three cities that I visited that were filled with the modern motorized rickshaws, most of the rickshaws in Varanasi were of the traditional type where a driver actually pedaled a bike with a carriage attached. I loved that. Basically, there was just a lot less crap to cut through to see the beauty and culture. This was my first impression of Varanasi, and it served to be true.
On our first day in Varanasi, we visited several historical sites including the Museum of Natural History (which housed relics dating back to 320 B.C.), the place where Buddha gave his first speech, the ruins of an ancient monastery, and a Buddhist Temple. I had never seen so much genuine ancient history in one place. It was absolutely gorgeous, but I just can’t even begin to get into everything that I saw here. I can tell you that walking through it gave me a beautiful peace of heart that I don’t know I’ve ever felt before. The hawkers in my face couldn’t rile me no matter how hard they tried. I politely told them “no thank you” and laughed (in a kind way) at their persistence, but I never got frazzled.
The highlight of this entire trip came for me the next day. No words can ever describe it, but I’m going to try.
The Ganges River
The bus dropped us off on a street leading to the Ganges River before 5:30 a.m. A light rain misted all around us and chilled the early morning air. The sun hadn’t yet begun to rise, but the streets were already starting to buzz with activity. Rickshaws, cows, and locals navigated the glistening cobblestone streets sleepily beginning to go about their business. Venders were already setting up along the road, selling goods related to the sacred Ganges, such as garlands of flowers and candles to send floating as offerings to the gods. Other venders made local foods on the side of the road to sell. Candles lit their tables to display their wares. There was a surreal, calming feeling to walking these narrow, lively streets in the dusk of the approaching morning towards one of the most holy, ritualistic places in the world. The misty morning had created a thin layer of mud over the road and it began to creep up my sandals and the bottom of my long skirt. After ten or fifteen minutes of walking, we reached the bank of the Ganges River and boarded two boats.
There were two boatmen in the back of each boat who rowed the boat us along the river as the sun began to rise. Ancient buildings lined the river – temples, budget accommodations, pilgrimage hotels, silk factories, yoga centers, and crematoriums set behind deep sets of steep concrete stairs. Bells played a beautiful, melodic song downstream to mark the morning light. Hindus worshiped and prayed along the concrete stairs and in temples and statues scattered along them. Along the banks, people ritualistically bathed, swam, drank, and brushed their teeth in the brown holy water. According to my Lonely Planet book, “Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100 mL of water. In water that is safe for bathing this figure should be less than 500!” According to my Indian guide, despite this figure, no one gets sick from the water, in fact, they believe that they need the water to live. He said that if a person from Varanasi had to leave for some reason on a trip, they would bring a jug of the river water with them, because they would believe that they would get very sick and die if they drank other water. The city completely revolves around the river.
A vendor boarded the boat and sold floating candles that we could wish upon and release into the river. Something very serious had been occurring at home and I was very very worried about someone very special to me. That particular day was an essential day. I had tried for days and days to call home to get news, however, I had been unable to get through at the right times. So, being in such a holy place was extremely special to me that day. I prayed so hard and as everyone released their candles into the river and they floated down the murky water like pinpoints of light, I prayed and wished very very hard on every single one of them. It comforted me and helped me feel like I was doing something when I couldn’t do anything. I felt a little closer to God even though it was a Hindu holy place, not a Christian. The energy was what mattered. Thankfully, today, I found out that my prayers were answered and things have become stable at home.
As our wishes floated down the Ganges, we approached one of the largest, oldest crematoriums on the river. The crematorium was alive with activity. Among the standard ritualistic activities being performed along the river, there was also a preparation of the dead occurring in various stages. We witnessed a couple of bodies being burned from the distance. At the river a body was carried down and lovingly washed with the water from the river. We witnessed another body (not cremated) being placed directly into the river (without being cremated), a little distance from the shore. There are a couple certain cases where the bodies are not first burned (children under eight and holy men are rested in the river without first being burned).
Vendors in boats came along our boat and tied themselves to it. They had wares in their boats such as post cards with pictures of the Ganges River, bottles for saving Ganges River water, jewelry, and statues of gods and goddesses. I bought a tarnished metal water holder with purple, blue and aqua stones on the top. It’s really beat up looking and is missing the side stones, but I thought that added to the charm. I filled it with Ganges water and spent the next three days, and two airplane rides, cradling it gently to make sure that I didn’t lose the water. It is definitely the most precious thing that I’ve collected so far on this trip. I have a feeling that I will spend my entire life making sure that I don’t lose the water every time I have to move it. I also got a sweet little whit statue of the Hindu God Ganesh. He is my favorite. When he was a little boy, he lost his head and his father replaced it with the head of an elephant. So, he has a God body and an elephant head. He is the God of good luck and overcoming obstacles. I have also been told that he is the patron of children.
After the sun had fully risen and we had spent a sufficient amount of time on the river, we pulled up to the crematorium to get off the boats. As we walked up the stairs, we passed the burning body of a rather young woman. A young man, probably her son, stood looking on somberly, but blankly. He looked up to our group passing and looking on the scene and I felt the energy of his silent sorrow like a rush of energy flying directly into my body. A man came up and said that we would have to pay him to take pictures of the body. I was horrified and silently prayed that no one would take him up on his horrific offer. Thankfully, no one did and everyone passed by reverently and respectfully. I was the last one in the procession and as I passed by the body and took a last look with the heavy heart that we are accustomed to in these situations as Westerners, I felt like the man was relieved with our quick, respectful passing. Maybe I am reading too much into this. If what I’ve been taught would be applied, he should be joyous that his loved one is being honored in such a holy way. But, I definitely connected on the sorrow and the relief at our passing. I have become a lot more sensitive to things of this nature between all the things that we’ve experienced and the practices we learn and apply in my Asian Religions class.
We proceeded up the side of the crematorium and entered the intricate maze of the old town. By the time we passed through the crematorium, the bottom of my skirt and my shoes (sandals) were entirely covered in mud. As my skirt brushed against my legs, they became more and more covered in mud with every step that I took. And, then we entered the most amazing place that I have ever seen in my entire life. It was a maze of cobblestone alleyways not big enough for cars or rickshaws to navigate. Ancient, colorful, eclectic buildings and temples were squished together in such a way that they all ran together in a collage of color and design. There were statues and paintings of gods everywhere. There would be a nook in the wall with a five foot high, statue wearing garlands of fresh flowers and other offerings, then five feet further, there would be an open door showing five holy men sitting in a circle in a dark room with candles doing some sort of worship or meditation, next you would see a little girl with a cow, then a beautiful temple, then a quant little traditional restaurant, and so on and so on and so on. Mixed in between were vendors with beautiful, unique wares that they were selling so much cheaper than anywhere else I was. There were garlands of fresh flowers hanging about everywhere and often the smell of incense and local food would fill my nose. Looking up, colorful banners strung between the buildings and tons of rather large and active monkeys played among the rooftops. I saw way more monkeys, at a closer proximity, than I did in the rainforest.
Mixed into all that ornamentation, were people going upon their daily life. These were truly the friendliest of the people that I came into contact with on my trip. This was the first place that I have been on this trip where more children are truly excited about your presence than are excited because they think that you will give them money or gifts. Of course there were still a few hawkers, usually young boys who hassled you a little bit, but that’s just part of the fun. I decided to try to clean up my muddy feet and legs a little bit because I thought that we were going to go into a temple (we ended up just viewing it from the outside). So, I hiked up my skirt a couple of inches so that the mud would be folded inside and tied it at the sides. Then I pulled out my trusty baby wipes (Thanks Danielle!!!) and “tried” to get some of the mud off my feet and my legs. A man nearby saw my fertile attempts and came over with a hose to clean off my feet and legs. I was so surprised and touched. I didn’t want to take advantage, so I let him hold the hose as I quickly got off the worst parts and then stepped away. But, he stopped me, pointing at the dirt on the back of my legs. So, he held the hose again, while I completely cleaned my legs and feet. That was such an amazing moment for me. I can’t explain it. After being hassled by people trying to scam you and get all your money for the past several days, it was just a refreshing change to have someone behave so kindly and selflessly. It notched my cloud level from 8 ½ all the way up to 9. I was truly blissful and at peace exploring this strange, eclectic hidden maze of a city.
After about a two hour walk, it was time to return. We suddenly came out of the maze into a larger street where vehicles could drive to find our buses. And, we left the Old City.
But, I didn’t forget her. As I sat at the airport, I was so torn. I felt the pull of the city calling me back. I didn’t want to leave. I knew I had to, but my heart didn’t want to. It was one of those moments where I actually considered the fact that I truly could just stay there and not get back on the ship if I wanted. I am serious. It was that special to me. I still feel this magnetic pull trying to drag me back . . . I’m not satisfied. I definitely need to return there and spend some real time there.
On Being Cold Hearted
Now, anyone who knows me will know that I’m a very sensitive and caring person. Sometimes I still cry a little when I see a beggar on the street in Chicago. Really, I do. So, why didn’t the poverty touch me in India? Why have I become so cold towards it? That is what bothered me the most about the poverty in India, that I was cold to it. Why did my friends cry over the beggars and deformed people they saw while I looked on with compassion, but did nothing and accepted it as a way of life? I thought about this a lot, because my insensitivity really bothered me. It’s just not like me. We saw women with babies begging, children begging, people with missing limbs, people with underdeveloped legs that had to drag themselves with their arms, a boy with elephantitis that had feet the size of a football, and so on and so on and so on . . .
I just feel so skeptical of human nature in the situation that I’m in. I feel defensive, like I always have to be on guard. I feel like anyone I come in contact with who wants to help me or talk to me has ulterior motives. I’m not saying this is true everywhere in life, but in these touristy areas where there is so much poverty, I feel certain that the saying nothing is free holds true. And, in fact, my suspicion has not turned out wrong once on this trip. In fact, my suspicions have only deepened. I feel terrible that I always seem to be running from the local people, but the ones that I come into contact with only see dollar signs when they look at me. For example, a man with no legs sat outside a temple and begged us for money. When we moved on to another temple a short time later by bus, he had beaten us there and sat outside begging again. Hmmmmm. He obviously didn’t use his arms to drag himself and beat our bus. Of course, I feel compassion for this man, but I don’t feel like it will help anything to give him money.
Another theory that I have about my insensitivity is that I had already been told what to expect and so I built a wall around my heart as a defensive mechanism. I think that this is a likely scenario, because, I have noticed that it is not the big, obvious things that disturb me, such as the boy with the seriously deformed feet, but the little instances that tug at my heart and make a big impression on me. Here are two instances that touched me. Maybe they aren’t that impressive, but these are the moments where my wall came down and I felt pain:
1 – As I was leaving a monument and was getting back on the bus, a little girl ran by, carrying a baby. She was no more than a baby herself. She couldn’t have been older than four or five. The baby was probably around a year old. The little girl ran right into my leg with the baby really hard and then kept running. I could hear the baby start screaming. I just stopped in my tracks, horrified and started after the girl. I couldn’t bear that I had hurt that baby even though I hadn’t done anything. I wanted to yell after the little girl and make her be careful with the baby. I wanted to find her parents and shake the hell out of them for letting this baby run around with a baby. I wanted to cry. But, I didn’t do any of that. I froze. I stared. I thought. I bit back tears and then I moved on.
2 – The other incident that really bothered me was not even something that I witnessed first hand. One night while talking with some friends, they told me something horrific. It’s almost too terrible to believe. But, several people insist to have seen it. They say that one of the beggar women carried a dead baby. One said that they had actually touched it and felt the cold stiffness. The rest had just known by the sight of it. Again, I wanted to cry. So badly. But to felt to do so would be somehow selfish. So, I quietly contemplated and mourned and moved on with a little more consciousness and sadness in my heart.
So, am I just a cold and heartless person??? I don’t know. Sometimes, while listening to other people talk about the horror of the things they saw and realize that they were the same things I saw and brushed off, I wonder. Maybe I’m just a little more worldly and experienced in this type of thing? Maybe I’m just better at blocking my feelings? I’m not sure. I guess that’s one of the things that I need to continue contemplating.
India flights – No batteries, no pickles, no chilli powder, no power saws, no hammers, no ice picks, no bow and arrows, etc. However, knives are ok if they are under three and a half centimeters. They feed you huge, really excellent warm meals on every flight, even those that are only an hour.
Security Checks – Women are checked behind curtains by women. Sometimes the checks are very intrusive.
Eastern Toilets – It’s a hole in the ground and you squat. I did it!!!
Indian food – Good, but I’m ready for a break. Not necessarily my favorite.
Diet Soda — $2 a can in fancy hotels. Not available anywhere else. What??? $2 a can!!!
Visiting a Hookah Bar in Delhi at midnight – amazing and potent
Seeing the Taj Mahal at sunset – indescribably beautiful and surreal
Seeing the largest Hindu Temple in Dehli – huge, intricate, beautiful, sacred
Having to cover my head to go into a Temple in Dehli – humbling
Eating at Pizza Hut one night – the best thing ever! I needed a break from the Indian food.Four flights, two train rides, and innumerable bus rides in four days
Amazing trip leaders – Meghan and Michael (two young RDs who are married to each other)The guards at the gate of the Taj Mahal making the women stand in line for an hour even though we had tickets and were at the front of the line – they wanted a bribe
The amazing group of kids who I shared these experiences with – new friends – old friends
Watching the WHITE SOX WIN their first world series game.
Somehow making it back to the ship with everything I bought
The ice cream in India. Amazingly creamy and rich
Jordan sharing his pillow with my on the train ride to the Taj so that I was able to sleep the whole way
Getting a cold
Not getting malaria (fingers crossed)
Not getting bit by a monkey
Getting a small (thank goodness) case of Delhi Belly on the day we returned to the ship
Buying fabulous flat sparkly shoes for $6 a pair, in INDIA.
Finding a book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses
Wow, I left out a lot of important details and I still got to eleven pages single spaced (my longest entry ever – and I didn’t even narrate – can you imagine if I had!). That’s just how India was, impossible to describe. That’s why I didn’t want to do it. People say that India will change you. I did a lot of touristy things and didn’t get much time to interact with locals, and so on the way back to the ship, I knew I saw a lot, but I wasn’t sure that I had really gotten a lot of culture. I didn’t think that I’d had any life changing experiences. However, soon after I boarded the ship, I realized that I had changed. I have no idea how. I just know that I feel different now. I know that things that were important to me seven days ago, are completely insignificant and things that didn’t matter much are now greater priorities. Maybe this is a temporary change. I’m not really sure what is different yet. But, while I was busy looking at the sights, India got into my blood and somehow changed me.
Myanmar tomorrow . . .