“Don’t go to India”, they told me. And when I told them that I was going anyway, I was often met with faces of disgust and the ever intimidating question of “why?“. I read and heard so much discouraging me from going, and for weeks leading up to my arrival I was scared and anxious. Now that I’m here, I can’t remember what I was so worried about. Don’t get me wrong, some of the assumptions people have are correct. It’s dirty, it’s crowded, it’s (partically) poor. But to me, those don’t seem like reasons not to go somewhere. The whole point of experiencing the world is to see different cultures…not to avoid the realities of others lives out of fear that it might make me uncomfortable.
I stepped off the airplane in Delhi and felt heat. A kind of heat I have never felt before, and it took less than a minute to start sweating. On the ride to our hotel, I was wiping my dripping face with my shirt, while watching the chaos that surrounded me. I’ve seen a lot of questionable driving before, but India is pure insanity. Cars, bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, cows, goats, pedestrians, dogs, all crowd the streets to create a dead stop in traffic almost everywhere. And they all make an unnecessary amount of noise. However, I’ve almost stopped hearing the car horns, the mixture of their different pitches and lengths now lull me to sleep at night.
In Delhi we walked into a tourism office for a free map, and ended up staying for a while. Over 2 cups of chai, the booking office had us sucked in. After carefully reviewing their credentials and their reviews online, we made a deal. I cancelled all previously booked hostels, and the company booked all new hotels, train tickets, pick ups from the stations, and excursions for us. He also added 2 new cities into our itinerary, because I had too much time planned in certain places. I do not doubt that we overpaid, as I’m already over budget, but what we did get for that extra was security. We had a home base, someone to call if something went wrong, and someone watching out for us. The following day, we did a tour of Delhi with the same company, all day, for $7. We saw a few Hindu temples, the tallest pillar in India (the Qutub Minar), visited the Indira Ghandi Memorial, the India Gate, and the president’s and parliament houses. The second day was a day of wandering, and we visited the Red Fort before heading on an overnight train to the holy city of Varanasi.
The train took 13 hours, but we were in an airconditioned car and I was able to sleep almost all of it. Varanasi was amazing. It’s one of, if not the oldest, living city in the world. It sits on the Ganges River (also known as River Ganga), a very holy river where many come to bathe every day.
Hindus and Buddhists alike come from all over India to see off their dead here. The river is lined with ghats, each of which serving a purpose. One day we got in a rickshaw, and the driver’s nephew came for the ride and decided he wanted to show us around. I thought it was a scam and that he would expect money, but really just wanted to hang out. He took us places we never would have found alone, so we did end up tipping him, and spent the following day with him as well. The most memorable experience has been at the burning place. One ghat sits on the water, connected to a small hospice, and 26 men work there cremating bodies – all day, every day. We watched from above as body after body was carried down to the river, covered in bright colors and flowers, to be bathed. They then let it dry out naturally for half an hour, before burning it in front of the male family members. The story goes that the wife of the man who started the burning ghat threw herself onto his dead body while it was being cremated, and this is one of the reasons women are not allowed to attend the cremations. Another is because some believe that crying brings bad wishes upon the dead, and the idea is that women are too emotional to attend. We watched while some workers created more wood piles, others bathed bodies, some sat in the river while shifting through ashes for gold and jewelry, and stray dogs pulled human bones out of the water to eat. The experience was incredibly moving, and I’m still not sure how to feel about it. No photos were allowed, but I took the following from as distance, on a boat. The tall brown building towards the left is where we visited to watch the
From there, we took another overnight train to Agra. On this train we happened to be sleeping across the aisle from two other American girls – woo! And we had a fun time. However, after dinner, we all had a lot of trash. We asked where the garbage was, and followed the man working on the train down the aisle. He took all of our crap, opened the door of the moving train, and chucked it out. We gaped at him and he laughed, telling us we could do it ourselves next time. I didn’t make any more trash for the rest of the journey. In Agra, within minutes of getting into a rickshaw, we drove into a teenage boy on a bicycle. He got up, exchanged some words with our driver, and road away. It was all totally normal and no one seemed angry or upset besides us. After settling in, we hired another rickshaw driver to take us around for the day. He was very friendly, but fell head over heels for Steph, calling her his wife the whole day. Ahem. But, he did let us each take a turn driving his rickshaw!! It was fun but not something I would ever do on a busier road.
On an unrelated note, one thing I’ve learned from visiting certain countries is that the term “third world” is no longer correct. It’s insulting, confusing, and outdated. When you look at places like India, you may want to say that it is under developed. You see things like poverty, dirtiness, disease, lack of resources. But if you look a little closer you will see incredible doctors, hospitals, and universities. You’ll see science and technology. India is ever developing, at a fast rate, but struggles to finally fit the category of developed. But at the same time, I wonder if this term of developing is correct either. It implies that all countries that haven’t reached the western standard of ideal to be lesser, despite the fact that the western world has its problems as well, especially socially. The term developing could also be seen as exploiting the people of these counties and I think, can perpetuate stereotypes. I could go on and on about this, but maybe I’ll save that for its own post. Just some food for thought.
Next stop is Rajasthan, where we visit 3 more cities and do a tiger spotting safari. We spend about a week there before heading off to Bangkok. It’s has been a crazy and somewhat stressful week, but I’m glad for the experience and excited for the rest of the journey.
Me driving the rickshaw. Pure terror on my face in the mirror!
A temple we visited in Delhi, shaped like a lotus. It welcomes people of all religions to pray to whatever they believe in inside.
Sending out candles and flowers on the Ganges River
Making friends on the train. This little girl had more interest in adding to our henna by drawing on our arms than she did with drawing on the paper.
The Taj Mahal
Inside one of the many INCREDIBLE marble rooms inside the Agra Fort.
Steph’s birthday dinner- finally were able to find beer!