India. The second most populous country of the world, thousands of years of history and culture, a multitude of languages and uncountable dialects, utter variety of religions and customs, stretching from tropical beaches and dry planes to the high peaks and fertile rich forests of the Himalayan mountains. India is no easy place to write about and worth a lifetime of discovery. I spent almost 2 month travelling to different places and decided not to trade my work for any projects to be able to travel freely…
Welcome to Mumbai, the dirtiest bay I’ve ever seen
4am, I flew in from Bangkok after a sleepless night and two month working on projects in Thailand. We dodged some serious monsoon clouds with the small Jet Airways plane and landed in Mumbai. I had been to Jakarta and Bangkok, two of the biggies in south-east Asia and thought I knew my way around Asia’s city jungles, but my senses were challenged when I sat in the Taxi leading me from the airport to Colaba (the backpackers hub). It was my first time in India, of course I read Shantaram and spoke to many friends and my parents (both travelled to India 30 years ago). It felt like I knew more about India than about some of the other places I had visited before.
Needless to say, it unfolds differently. My taxi slowly battled its way through friday’s rush hour, all roads congested in a thick mix of motorbikes, busses, cars, cows, rickshaws, people and the sound of a thousand arrhythmic vehicle horns. Many travellers know the feeling when the bubble made of expectations, imagination and prejudice bursts after meeting reality. During those first moments, India was more crowded, more colourful, dirtier and more chaotic then what I had imagined. I thought: “India has to be experienced”.
I was happy to arrive in one of my first pre-booked hotel rooms since I started my trip (with a rather peculiar design). During my first day in Mumbai the Arabian Sea was agitated and powerful waves pressed the brown and dirty waters onto the streets. Every inch of water surface looked like it had some sort of debris floating in it and I was seriously impressed. I took out my notebook and wrote “if there are wounds in our oceans, one of it is the bay of Mumbai”. The Gateway of India was locked down by police but crowds of locals happily dodged the angry waters on the Marine Drive.
I don’t like mega cities, so I hurried to leave Mumbai.
Welcome to India said a sign, I was ready.
Pune to Delhi, a train ride to remember
I took a bus to Pune to visit my German cousin and had the chance to met some of India’s middle class, hanging out in bars with European music and expensive beers. The neighbourhood where I stayed was close to well secured gates with fancy apartments on the other side, many went for an evening walk in a extremely tidy public park with paid entry. One of India’s many contrasts.
My next stop was Delhi, so I spent my day at Pune’s crowded train station buying a train ticket. Everything was booked a month in advance but after some hours and visiting a special office they found me an extra seat, allocated especially for tourists. The next day I was on my way in the sleeper class, for the 1500Km and almost 30 hour long ride to Delhi. I was lucky to be sharing my compartment with group of young Muslim scholars traveling from the very south of India to Delhi. The boys were great and shared their food, prayed and studied by my side while they observed everything I was doing. Being the only foreigner in the carriage made everyone want to hang out and meet me. My first long trip across India was a time of friendly encounters and gave birth to a great little photo series. It’s food for western minds: imagine a train with fixed beds by number but where everyone sits everywhere, giving you space when you need to sleep (erm, and communicate it…). Imagine you’ll be able to buy everything from food to water and socks, without ever getting out of your seat. Salesman are constantly passing during the journey and coming in at each stop. Yes, it’s tight and hot and sweaty, but everyone is OK about it and nobody is complaining. I missed it when I sat on a bus from Germany to Portugal for 36 hours the other day, people complaining, food banned from the bus…
Caught in the tourist bubble from Jaipur to Khajuraho
In Delhi I met a friend from New Zealand and we had 10 days to travel together. After just a few hours in the city we ended up in a small tourist office to gather information about some places we wanted to visit. I usually never book planned tours but that dude called Veejay in his little office was a real pro, he got me into it. One hour later and after a lot of bargaining we left with a “road trip” from Jaipur to Agra, Khajuraho to Varanasi and beyond. Our own driver, pre-booked hotels, transfers and train tickets… but I quickly learned what it really was. Although our driver was a good guy, we were visiting the shops and restaurants he got his commission from and obviously entry fees for monuments and everything else was extra. Don’t get me wrong, we made the best of it but I think we left a slightly unhappy driver and some unhappy shop owners behind us after a few days, since.. well, we didn’t behave very “touristy”. It might be good word of advice for first time India travellers – Don’t go for the tour, enjoy the unknown and risk booking your own transport and hotels, it’s some extra sweat but it will be worth it. Nonetheless, we did a lot in 10 days, from seeing the colourful Elephants and forts in Jaipur, the impressive Taj Mahal, the Kama Sutra Temples in Khajuraho and the holy city of Varanasi.
Varanasi – Mother Ganga and the burning Ghats
It is well beyond the scope of this article to write about every single place I visited but Varanasi has its own story to tell. Varanasi is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, who wash away their sins in the holy river Ganga. I purchased a copy of “India Today” (with Varanasi as the main story), which described how of the the daily 300 million litres of sewage waters only from the city, 200 million couldn’t be treated and would be drained directly into the Ganga. An older gentleman I met on the train wondered loudly why all the tourists were still headed to Varanasi, with so many nicer places to see in India. The “India Today” article continued: the famous “Ghats“ near the Ganga falling apart, sanitation problems, poverty and it being one of India’s most overpopulated cities. OK, sounds like a city worth visiting.
According to Hindu belief it is said that dying in Varanasi will free you of your Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound to. Varanasi is a good place to die. The bodies of those who pass away elsewhere and whose families can afford it, are carried to Varanasi, cremated at the burning Ghats and their ashes thrown into the holy river. The rituals can be visited and are a tourist attraction but should not to be photographed, for good reasons.
It is slightly intimidating to see washed bodies being carried to their pile of wood and my own experience was overshadowed by good bit of emotional blackmailing: The young gentleman that suddenly stood at our side spoke relentlessly and by his own account he was not working as a guide and required no payment. He led us to a balcony that overlooked the Ghat and told us that the building we were in was a place where old poor people came to die and that he expected a donation. I needed a moment of silence and his constant talking made it hard to perceive what was going on – burning bodies, the river, an old lady that he said was a nurse. I told him to leave us for a minute and but he wanted the donation immediately. I said that we’d donate if we felt like it, that he couldn’t force us. Agitated, he said we couldn’t stay there without an immediate donation. He added we weren’t welcome in this place and that we had to leave the Ghat, or he’d call friends and family to sort things out. I thought that it was a trick and we didn’t give him money, so we left the holy place slightly troubled since we didn’t want to disrespect anyone. Was it a trick? You donate when you want to, not when someone hurries you into it, right? Or should we’ve donated anyway? There are moments in India when the line between the value of your money as a tourist, your pride and people in need, gets blurry. We left with an uneasy feeling…
10 days of silence in Bodh Gaya
After Varanasi I was headed to Bodh Gaya, a famous place where Gautama Buddha is said to have obtained Enlightenment. I attended my first Vipassana course at the Dhamma Bodhi International Meditation Centre. 10 days of noble silence with around 10 hours of meditation every day, during monsoon and plus 40 degrees celsius. Needless to say, it was intense. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are” and aims for the “total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation”. It was really hard work but also one of the best things I’ve ever done. Read more about the course on my previous article.
Endless streams of water and lush forests in Himachal Pradesh
10 days of silence put me on a quest for more quiet places and I jumped on a train up to the north to Haridwar, final destination Rishikesh. It was raining and I met the Ganga again, streaming powerfully between both sides of the city. I also met my friend again and we spent a few days there and visited the mandatory Yoga class where I definitely won. From Rishikesh we took an uncomfortable overnight bus ride up to Manali. It was good to be high up, hot showers were amazing after Bodh Gaya’s heat. Snow covered mountain tops guarantee an amazing view and it’s smokers paradise, since weed grows exuberantly on the every corner. Manali and Vashisht were a great treat but still too crowded. Another long bumpy bus ride took us into Parvati Valley. We heard about a small village called Tosh, where all roads end. Tosh was the place – great views up the high Himalayan mountains, lush green forests, waterfalls, long hikes along endless streams of water pouring between trees and following the steep valleys. Near Tosh there’s another small village called Pulga, only reachable by foot through the valley. It was what I was looking for, with just a few tourists, cheap, amazing Nature and really friendly locals. I’ll be back, also because I didn’t manage to hike up to Kiri Ganga, a holy place with hot springs a days walk up the valley. It’s beautiful, go there!
My time in India was coming to an end so after some beautiful days with great nature moments I returned to Delhi’s warm embrace of chaos and got ready for Europe. More photos below.
End of part 1.
My article about India grew beyond what the Internet forgives in reading time, so I split it in 2 parts. For part 2, I interviewed some Indian friends about staring Indians and photos with foreigners, I spent some time thinking about secularism and culture in India and I’ll try to explain why it was transformative experience for me. Come back soon…