INDIA… the I is for Intense (Part II)

(buscando la versión en castellano? … click aquí! )

… and the adventure in India continues (there’s a Part I”, in case you missed it!) .

Remember I said Part I was only the warm-up? Well, it was……with cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Varanasi on the list, things were bound to get real. Indian real. And you know what that I stands for.

First, however, I did save some of the random facts and thoughts for this second half, so here we go:

  • Yes, India might be a poor country. But we felt safe*. Walking the streets, even at night, we never had that feeling of “someone’s gonna rob us at the count of 3” that you sometimes get. We could relate the appearance of some poor areas we walked through, with equally poor areas in Peru… but in those ones back home I wouldn’t dare walking at night even with Chuck Norris escorting me (ok, perhaps with Chuck  I would).  *Disclaimer on this one, as we were traveling as a couple. We did hear from some female solo-travelers that they didn’t actually feel that safe in some places.

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– along the Ganga river at night –
  • The food.  So much is said about Indian food. People in the south will claim they have the real deal. People in the north will claim the same. In our view the difference was not THAT drastic (apologies for the blasphemy, my Indian friends). We tried plenty of both and enjoyed it a lot, but towards the end we were craving some western food. More and more often, you start appreciating those simple scrambled eggs for breakfast. Also, I might be biased, but there’s no way I’d put Indian cuisine at the same top-of-the-world-ranks level as our Peruvian food. We have soooooo many more textures, forms, colors, smells and flavors. Hey, my point of view. It was still yummy.

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– Before we had even asked for the menu, we had this in front of us… a “Thali“. It was a Thali-only restaurant. –
  • And still -somewhat- in the “food” category … ever heard of Bhang? Bhang is an edible form of cannabis, culturally/spiritually used in India since god knows when. It’s legal. The most common way to ingest it is through a “Bhang Lassi” (like a yogurt-based milkshake). Interesting.

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– I got this photo from a friend of a friend, who apparently tried it 🙂 –
  • The notion of “personal space” is an interesting one here. Or shall I say nonexistent? Blink, and the person who was behind you on the line will suddenly be ahead. Pretend that you are looking at something interesting in your hands and soon there will be a second pair of eyes, checking over your shoulder.
  • Oh, and It didn’t take long for Sandra to realize she is totally within India’s average female height. Yay! Might sound unimportant, but remember we live in The Netherlands, where going to the “stand-up” section of a concert is a definite no-no. Here she can even look at some men, eye-to-eye, without any strain in the back of her neck. Awesome.

Having said all that, once again back to the route…. We left the story in Goa, didn’t we? …well, after the yoga days we continued heading north…

MUMBAI & AURANGABAD

There’s a whole debate about its name. Bombay or Mumbai? I won’t get into it. I’ll stick to Mumbai for no particular reason (let’s say I flipped a coin).

Our first seriously large city (meaning 20+ million souls). There we met another good-old friend, Deepti, who got us tickets to an awesome Bollywood musical comedy and took us for a fun night out to a stock-exchange-inspired bar (where cocktail prices go up or down according to demand). We ended up learning how to do our own Bollywood moves. The trick is to follow the foolproof instructions of “turn the lightbulb, pet the dog”. Try it. Easy squeezy.

Mumbai_IMG_8217– night out with Deepti in Mumbai –

And since Bollywood moves have the power of making everyone smile, here a short clip from the musical:

– turning lightbulb after lightbulb –

From Mumbai we took a train to Aurangabad, a small town (read: about twice the size of Amsterdam), from where you visit the MINDBLOWING caves of Ajanta and Ellora. Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist temples of all sizes and shapes, carved directly from or into the solid rock, with chisel and hammer, incredible details and zero margin for error. One of them is the largest monolithic sculpture in the world, cut from top to bottom (think about that for a second… from top to bottom… no scaffolding needed) right from the rocky mountain (please Google the “Kailasa temple,” as there’s no way my pictures will do it justice).

I honestly think these sites are absolutely underrated. I would put them right there, next to Machu Picchu or Petra, in the list of “new” world wonders, so impressive it was.

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– entire temple carved out from the rock, the closer you got, the bigger it turned out to be –

There’s also a smaller, “fake” version of the Taj Mahal in Aurangabad… check the pics 😊.


VARANASI

“The real India”, we had been told by our travel-planners, the Barthurs. Indeed, it is surreal, out of a different world. The “ghats”, name given to the stairways leading into the Ganga river, are an overwhelming, sense-stimulating display of colors, sounds and scents… people praying, eating, bathing, washing bright saris, playing cricket, making music, cremating their dead ones, officiating ceremonies, selling stuff, touting for boat tours… scary-looking “sadhus” -holy men- living in their parallel reality, fake not-so-holy sadhus asking for money, cows, buffaloes, goats, dogs, piles of cremation wood and, of course, us, the astonished tourists, the ones in organized tours, the solo-backpackers, the hippies, the wannabe hippies, the Chinese groups wearing matching outfits and following their flag-bearing guide, everyone. What a mix.

Cover_Varanasi_IMG_5206– sensory overload –

In Varanasi we also met Elda and Claudio, there on a shorter visit from Lima. So refreshing, to see friends from back home, so far away from it, even if just for a few meals, chats and walks (successfully dodging all the cow pies on the streets).

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– familiar faces in Varanasi –

Here a short clip of Sandra walking down the market street, a bit in a hurry, as we were late for a religious ceremony which takes place every afternoon by the river:

– did I  already say “sensory overload”? –

And a funny moment… our 15 year-old improvised guide was explaining the 5 reasons why a body won’t be cremated (and rather dumped directly into the river)… and when he got to “number 4: when you die from the bite of a cobra”, Sandra interrupted abruptly, panic in her face, yelling: “COBRAS? ARE THERE COBRAS HERE?”. The mysticism was lost for a few seconds, there.

OK, now some pictures. Suggest this time you click on them, to see them in a bit more detail, rather than just scrolling down through this page with the smaller version.  Just an idea.

DELHI & AGRA

So glad we didn’t start with Delhi. The story would have been so different (and most likely shorter). And we even chose the wrong neighborhood to stay. First hotel I ever see that has a plastic key-card system, but also a plastic key-card shortage, hence no key-cards available for the guests  (“just let us know, we’ll go and open the door for you every time”). Also a room with green walls due to a 250% relative humidity and, if you dared to open the window “for fresh air” -as the clerk kindly suggested-, you’d start breathing dust and carbon monoxide instead of the moldy air. Oh well.

By this time, the level of accumulated intensity reached its historical high … and our stock of Pepto-Bismol its historical low, ifyouknowwhatImean. Walking the streets of Delhi, particularly Old Delhi, was quite something. Understandably, the level of enthusiasm was suffering and a little bit of “saturation” started kicking in.
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– never understood why Sandra said she felt observed –

On the other side, It was refreshing to, also here, meet two good-old friends from the good-old  business school days. Akhil for lunch at a very nice and modern spot, crazy Akshay for dinner. Good people. I didn’t know Akshay had, since we had last met, gone in-full into Krishna mode, so our dinner was at Delhi’s main Krishna temple. No garlic or onion in the food, as both can increase your libido (and that is a bad thing, of course). Interesting to experience (and to hear Akshay say “Hare Krishna” about 73 times in 2 hours).

 – with Akhil and Akshay, much appreciated relaxing moments in hectic Delhi-

Oh.. and here (meaning in Delhi, not the Krishna temple) we also met Erica, a cool and energetic Italian solo backpacker we had already seen in Varanasi and before that in the overnight bus from Kochi to Mysore (remembered by Sandra as “the bus from hell”).  Three times we had coincided, thousands of kilometers apart. What were the odds? Well, rather high, we seem to confirm once again.

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– The travelers’ world is small, my friends. Even in India. –

And then came Agra, where you go pretty much only to visit world-wonder Taj Mahal, considered by some as the most beautiful building in the world. It’s also been described as (and I’m not making these ones up) “a love poem composed of stone”, “the embodiment of all things pure” and “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity”…go figure.

Following the tips from the guidebook, we went to the Taj before sunrise. It was probably the most crowded moment of the day, not to mention the fog. You have surely seen the typical picture of the Taj, right?…well, this is what we first got from that main viewpoint:

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– someone stole the Taj Mahal!-

Sandra started getting nervous. “We’ve come in vain!, and so and so”. Luckily, it slowly cleared up and we got to see all those magnificent views. Quite impressive, in fact! Not sure I would have come up with “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity”, though.

We did manage to get the mandatory Instagram picture a bit later, as you can see below. For that, you needed a “traffic controller” who, whistle in hand, would for a small tip stop people from trying to invade the “picture spot” all at once.

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– 50 other folks were waiting for their turn, at both sides of what you see here above –

This same spot, viewed from the Taj in the opposite direction, looked like this:

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 – everyone wants the postcard picture –

Here some more pics of Delhi and Agra …

JAIPUR & PUSHKAR

Our last stops in India. And the only ones in the state of Rajasthan. Some people only visit Rajasthan when they come to India -so it’s an important one- …but we left several cities out of the plan to carve out some days for the countries yet to come (we did some “long-term” planning, for a change).

Jaipur, “the pink city”, was the cleanest and probably least chaotic Indian city we visited. Not crazy impressive, but nice.  A very well kept royal palace, a huge fort in the outskirts and plenty of pink buildings (some of them closer to “ocher”, actually). Not much more than that.

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– pink windows, for royal women to spy on innocent street walkers, back in the days –

Pushkar we loved! Funky little colorful holy town, kind of a mini Varanasi, with ghats leading down to a small lake (if you don’t know what a ghat is by now, you haven’t been paying attention).

It’s a known destination for backpackers and hippies. Many barefoot rastafara-looking westerners with loose colorful clothes, ankle bracelets and the usual “I’m so relaxed” attitude. It was in fact relaxing. We spent our time walking up and down the main market street searching for food, looking at the many colorful wedding “parades” (I believe it was wedding season) and dodging extremely persuasive self-proclaimed holy-men who ask for “donations”, yelling at you that “it’s good for karma!” with a not-so-spiritual tone. More than one intimidated young female visitor ends up involuntarily opening her purse.

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– opening of a parade in colorful Pushkar –

One of the most active moments in Pushkar came when I looked up from my laptop, inside of our room, and found a rather large monkey, staring back at me while he held up one of the bananas I had left on the table. About one meter away from my nose. I yelled and almost hit him with my laptop (instinctively). I hit the table instead, leaving a nice dent on my laptop as a souvenir. And one less banana on the table.

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– shut your windows, rooftop monkeys are always ready to strike –

And that was India!

Oh, sorry, final set of pics was missing, from Jaipur and Pushkar:

SO, IN CONCLUSION?

Delhi_IMG_8671Now, the thing is … we had awesome days with the Barthurs, loved our yoga week by the beach and were amazed by the greatness of the Ellora Caves, the Taj Mahal and the surreal nature of Varanasi and Pushkar. Strangely, though, there was a bit of bitter aftertaste in our heads. After talking about it, we concluded that it was due to all the “in-betweens”. The long train and bus rides, the never-ending taxi rides to and from airports, the smog-covered tuk-tuk rides in jungles of honking, the long walks through dusty streets… we believe it’s all of those -let’s be honest, not so appealing to the eye – moments, that generated those mixed-feelings. The ratio of “activity” over “time in-between activities” played against us, I guess. It felt strange.

For the same reason, we can’t categorically say, “India, we loooooved it!” … neither of course did we hate it. We loved many parts of it… disliked some…perhaps hated one or two moments. It’s definitely a country worth visiting, though, and we are glad we did.

Still, by day 44 we were ready to go back to South-East Asia… next stop Cambodia.

Before that, this time the musical video is sponsored by Pushkar’s very own “Sunder Brass Band”.

– a teardrop on the cheek of –musical– eternity –

cheers (and thank you if you made it all the way to here… I know it was long!)

Hoi An – Vietnam, March 20th, 2018


 

 

 

 

 

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