India

The World I Saw

 

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A Rant About Transportation in Asia

Transportation in Asia was a constant source of annoyance for me. I actually thought and said, “I miss the buses of South America” all the time. This isn’t just for the comfort level of the bus itself or even the bumpiness of the roads – South America had it’s fair share of shitty buses and popping popcorn rides – but because of the way it all works.

For starters, there aren’t really stations. Buses can pick you up anywhere. Most often it’s on a random street corner, sometimes at least near some travel agency offices or a taxi stand. Or they insist on picking you up from your hostel. Why is this a necessary thing? They send a minibus to the hostel which takes an hour to circle town and pick up everyone before going to the big bus. Sometimes it’s a tuktuk that picks you up, once it was a taxi that took us to the wrong station, and once the minibus was the actual transportation to the border for 6 hours.

And on the other side, they can drop you off anywhere too. Finding your hostel then becomes a fun game of ask everyone in sight and hope someone knows at least something helpful, or get in the first tuktuk that seems confident once you’re too frustrated to find it on your own.

Then there’s the reservation system. Instead of going to a station and buying a ticket, you talk to the travel agent (aka guy at stand with bus times) who makes a call then writes out a flimsy paper ticket. Who are they always calling? How do they know what bus and what seat? I want transcripts of these conversations so I can actually try to understand this system. It seems like chaos to me. But then you take the paper slip from the guy and trust that your bus will be at that time and, often, that someone will come get you.

The ride itself is so long because these buses stop so often. Instead of the “bathroom on board we don’t stop till we get there” system of South America there’s a “you can only pee when we tell you so we’ll stop every hour to do so and by the way thirty minutes at this one for food” system.

And that arrival time they tell you? Ignore it. It’d be one thing if all the buses were late, but sometimes they’re early! That probably sounds nice but when you’re supposed to arrive somewhere at 5 am and it’s actually 3 am it really sucks. I’ve wondered more than once how it was possible to make up so much time with all the stops, but then I decided it’s better to not know.

The entire system take a lot of faith. I had to just trust that what this random person told me would happen, and most of the time it actually did. Remarkably. It was a trying way to travel but I survived. I can’t say I’m not happy to be done with it though.

Especially after India. This all came to a head in India, the most difficult place in my trip to get around. First, everything is booked. Unless you plan weeks in advance forget the trains, but it’s not like buses are empty either. Is the whole country constantly on the move? Then once we did get a bus ticket we weren’t even sure it would work out until we were safely on the bus pulling out of the station, and even then there was little relief until we’d safely arrived at the next place. Let me take you through my worst bus experience…

Haridwar bus station

Haridwar bus station

It was leaving Haridwar (Rishikesh) for Jaipur. We rushed to the Haridwar bus station, aka open dirt patch with tons of people loitering everywhere, to find out our bus would actually be leaving an hour later. The man took my receipt and gave me a little yellow piece of paper no bigger than a post-it note. This was my ticket. We tried to wait at a location with the bus in view but quickly were surrounded by a dozen teenage boys asking for pictures. We had to move. This is how we spent an hour, constantly moving around the buses trying to get away from all of the staring people. We were the only white people there, and two blonde girls at that. We found a solo British man and the three of us stood next to our bus waiting to board, trying to ignore the group of men who had gathered nearby to stare. We got on the bus at the original time, then waited an hour and a half for it to leave. We watched full families load into a single sleeper bed. Finally on the road we felt relief, until the rest stop. Not having had a chance to use the bathroom before we left, we had to brave it. If you picture the kind of rest stop in a movie where two American girls would be abducted this was it. It was the most unsafe I’ve felt in all of Asia and I could not get back on the bus soon enough. Kwaz I’m sorry you had to experience this but I’m so happy to have had a friend with me. They never came by our bunk to make sure we were back, at some point the bus just started moving. They easily could have left people behind. Which is why we were shocked when someone banged on our bunk telling us Jaipur was the next stop. How did they even know where we were going? And who the hell was this guy, he wasn’t the one who checked our tickets when we got on. The bus weaved its way into the city and pulled over to drop us off, not at the bus station from which we had directions to our hostel, but in the middle of the Pink City. At 4:30 in the morning. It was dark, we were totally lost, and we quirky learned that nobody in Jaipur is helpful. Quite the opposite. We asked what direction something was to try to find the guest house and after a long walk through the deserted streets gave up and took a rickshaw, which went right back the direction we had come. We had been pointed in the exact opposite way we needed to go. Finally we made it to the guest house after a trip that was a serious test of my nerves.

This, along with a few other bus sagas (remember this and this?), is part of the reason I’m a bit relieved to be taking a break from traveling around Southeast/South Asia. It was a lesson in patience, which I suppose I’ve gained a lot of on this trip, and faith. Lesson learned. Moving on.

Go to Hampi

I had one more place I had to see in India before I could leave. Travelers around the world said I had to go to Hampi; even when I was debating just staying in Goa for my last few days, expats who loved Goa enough to make it their new home still told me I had to go to Hampi. So in a final push, despite my tired frustration with India transportation, I committed to going to Hampi.

Thank god I did.

Hampi was everything I’ve loved on this trip. It was beautiful, nature, history, architecture, new friends, middle of nowhere, motorbikes, sunrises and sunsets, effortless enjoyment, peaceful, an instant connection, and a hard place to leave.

I arrived as the sun was rising, sometime around 6 am, with a business card for a recommended guest house from a traveler in Hampi whose address was “On the Other Side of the River.” This is how everyone told me where I should stay: the other side of the river. But what side of the river had I been dropped off on? Was this the side or the other side?

After talking to one of the many rickshaw drivers who had swarmed the bus, I found out we were on the Other Side. So I set off with two new friends who I’d just met getting our luggage off the bus, Sam and Guy, to find Manju’s Place. We skeptically reached the end of the street and were directed to a small path cutting through a rice field. That way? That way. As soon as we decided to go for it I could have cared less whether or not the hostel was at the end of this route – it was – walking down this dirt path flanked by green rice plants as the sun was rising over hills made out of boulders was one of the best arrivals to anywhere I’ve been. It was a sign of what was to come.

Manju’s was the perfect place to stay. We each had our own little clay hut, complete with double bed and mosquito net, in a clearing surrounded by palm trees. The common spaces were two covered pavilions with cushions on the floor, welcoming lounging day and night. And every time I went anywhere I had two choices: walk through the rice field or along the river. There was no bad choice.

The river walk was our next discovery. After we checked in we went to find breakfast and chose to go this other route. We climbed down through trees and overgrown bushes so we couldn’t see what was up ahead, but when we popped out the other side we all gasped and laughed at the beauty of the scene in front of us. More mountains of boulders glowed in the dawn light, as did the tall Virupaksha temple and all of the ancient ruins across the river. I think this was the moment we all fell in love with Hampi.

Most of my three days in Hampi were spent ogling my surroundings. One day was dedicated to walking around the immediate area across the river, climbing up and around the scattered ruins, trying to imagine what this place was like in its heyday. We paused in our explorations to watch dozens of monkeys run around on the walls and temples. Even after months of monkeys and temples there was something different about this sight. I was mesmerized. We ended the day on the hill for sunset. Kids came by offering chai and lemon juice, and a group of about 50 gathered to play music. Apparently sunset is the big event of the day every day and I could see why: the view, the vibe, it was all perfect.

The second day started with sunrise again, back up on the rocks. This time it was just me and Sam watching the day begin. Then it was time for more temples further outside of Hampi town. We gave in and took a rickshaw, it was 41 degrees Celsius (that’s 105 Fahrenheit) and they were pretty far away. Our driver was stunned when we spent three hours at the first place, Vithala Temple. I was happily surprised by how amazed I was. Again, I’ve seen my fair share of temples lately, but something about this place was different. The amount of detail was incredible, the carvings ornate, delicate and sturdy at the same time, and the subterranean walk around the center was eerie and breathtaking. We roamed two more places – the Queen’s Bath and the Lotus Mahal – before returning to Manju’s exhausted, sweaty, and thoroughly satisfied. Everything we saw was beautiful and worth making it out to.

The third day was my third sunrise, this time at the river by myself. It was my last real morning in India (I would be on an overnight train that night on my way to my flight out of Delhi) and I wanted to give it the proper goodbye. Sometimes I do these solo sunrises and usually I find them peaceful, contemplative, rejuvenating. But this was India, and instead of the total clarity that I usually experience I was worried about the pack of stray dogs trying to get close to my perch, and then the two men wandering close by with no one else around. Couldn’t you just give me one moment of happy peace? Nope. So in some way I suppose it was a good end to India. It felt like it was time to leave.

But first I had one final day of adventuring in Hampi. Sam had rented a motorbike, so we jumped on and went in search of the lake people had mentioned. Turns out it’s a reservoir with a crocodile – swim at your own risk – so we just enjoyed a picnic on the shore. It was still pretty, like everything in Hampi. Riding around on the bike was a highlight in itself: we were on a road lined by palm trees winding through more rice fields with boulder mountain backgrounds. We drove behind a truck with tons of kids tirelessly waving to us. We almost got hit by a stubborn cow crossing the street. We stopped at a random hill with a temple and scampered up to the top, rewarded for our efforts with the most stunning view over the insane landscape that surrounds Hampi. It was the perfect last day.

Before I sum this up, I have to give a quick shout out to Sam. All the “we” in this post is because from the minute I got off the bus until I left town I hung out with Sam. It was like Sam and I had decided to come to Hampi together; you’d think we’d known each other forever with our exploring compatibility and easy conversation. He’ll always be connected to my time in Hampi and for that I’m very grateful. There have been people along the way (who I’ve mentioned here) who have had a lasting impression on me and I hope will be in my life forever, and Sam is one of those people. And since he lives just up north in Canada, I am not even a little bit worried about seeing him again. That’s inevitable.

Hampi was my favorite place in India. It was unlike anywhere else I’d been, but also so like places in other countries that I put at the top of my highlights list. It was small, removed, and the daily activities were wander around a gorgeous landscape, watch the sun rise and fall, and chill. It was exactly what I needed after two weeks of traveling around that insane country, but more importantly, exactly where I needed to be when I reached the end of my Round the World itinerary. I wrote my blog post marking that momentous occasion from my favorite cafe in town (the site of one breakfast, two lunches, and one dinner) on the afternoon of my last day, an hour before I left to catch my train. I don’t believe I could have written anything like that anywhere else. Hampi inspired me; it affected me in a way I want to thank it for.

Go to Hampi. Like everyone told me before, I’m telling you now, you have to go to Hampi. Then you can understand why you will be the next person telling the world to go to Hampi.

The Nights of Goa

Goa nightlife is centered around one thing: trance music. This isn’t my jam but when in Goa…

We tried out trance parties twice. Our first night in town was apparently Anjuna’s night off; everyone had been out until well after breakfast, apparently Tuesday night is huge, so most of the town seemed to be taking it easy. We would not be deterred. We heard Goa nightlife was all night every night and we were ready to go.

So we united with the one Swedish guy who was willing to try out the only party anyone seemed to know at Hilltop. We got there, we got drinks, we started to get into the quirky I-dance-with-no-one-but-myself movements, and the DJ stopped playing. The cops shut down the party before midnight. We were in shock. Everyone filed out, jumped on their motorbikes, and rode off like one big scooter gang to find another option or just go home.

We tried one more party at Club 9 and were introduced to dark trance. Dark is misleading; this is hyperactive trance. The only way to keep up with what is sort of like the beat is to gyrate like you’re having a seizure. It’s a workout. And it was a scene for sure. We made it till about 3 am before calling it quits.

The walk to get back to Anjuna (we’d ended up in Vagator) was through open unlit fields. A pack of street dogs sprinted past us to gather in a field and howl like coyotes, except for the one that sounded like it was dying. So we made a large arc through the far side of the field to avoid the pack. The cows became our friends; they parted their roadblock for us.

The second night was much more of a success. After a few gimlettes to get the night going, we met up with our beach friends and went to Curlie’s for an on-the-beach trance party. Curlie’s was quite the scene: a Burning Man-esque sculptured light display stretched out over the dance “floor” (sand) from the DJ booth, under which people solo-danced together to the electronic sounds. To the side was a huge hangout area of well-lit tables, and down on the beach were vendors selling all the late night essentials like cigarettes and greasy food.

We danced, we drank, we got glow painted, we took tons of pictures, and I got to spin some light-up poi balls for a bit. By the time it was almost 5 am we had no choice but to stay until the sun rose. At first this seemed like it would be a gradual change, but all of a sudden it was light out and we were left with the dedicated party goers. We had made it at a Goa trance party till dawn. We felt accomplished, like we experienced the night we came for. We walked back along the beach shortly before 8 am in the peaceful early morning light.

No wonder no one does anything during the day. We slept till the afternoon and even then were slow moving. Our last night was the biggest beach party in Goa or something, but we never found out what that meant; it was Kwaz and my last night together, and she had to leave at 3:30 am for a 6 am flight back up to Delhi, so we opted for a bottle of wine at the hostel. That was way more us than another all night techno rave.

I can’t say I really get trance music or the whole scene around it. I suppose we tried it out and it wasn’t too bad, but if I ever go back to Goa I’d like to try out nights on other beaches. We heard Arambol was more drum circles than DJ’s, a little more up my alley.

The Days of Goa

Goa was the last stop of our whirlwind two week tour of India. What better way is there to end a trip like this than with three days of beach, sun, shopping, and partying?

We chose to stay in Anjuna, the supposedly new hippie location in between party-centric Vagator and commercialized Baga. It had a low key feel (especially compared to busy Baga), with cows roaming next to night clubs and everything you could need within a short walk to the beach, or in some cases right on the beach. It was the vibe we were looking for, perfect for a short stint but not somewhere I would spend more than a couple of days.

Our time in Goa was meant to be relaxing, so we limited ourselves to one task per day. Our first day happened to be a Wednesday, the day of the weekly Anjuna Flea Market, so this was an easy choice for our one activity. Started decades ago as a gathering of hippies selling their possessions to raise enough money so they could stay in Goa, the market has since grown to be a main draw for tourists.

Massive doesn’t even begin to describe it. We wandered in and around this market for hours, getting lost in stalls of scarves, jewlery, clothes, incense, spices, and all sorts of trinkets. It was an easy place for Kwaz to finish up her souvenier shopping and I finally gave in too. I’ve been good about not wasting money or precious backpack space on souvenirs, but when I saw the Tibetan Yak Wool shawls I couldn’t resist anymore. I was first introduced to these beautiful pieces at Shambhala and was jealous of my friends who got them, so when I found a pattern that was nothing short of awesome and haggled it down to a price half of what they were in Thailand I just had to have it. By mid afternoon the market reached swealtering heat levels so we beelined to fresh air and lounge chairs on the beach. Beach, finally! And what goes better with beach than beers and gold fried calamari? Nothing? That’s what we thought too. Day 1 success.

The next day our one activity was the beach. We had breakfast at one of the restaurants right on the beach then moved next door to the lounge chairs at Jack and Jane’s, where we spent the next few hours loving their mojitos and their soundtrack (70’s throwbacks and some rock jams, a nice contrast to the trance everywhere else). The water in Goa is so warm and calm; there was no convincing myself that it wouldn’t be as cold when I got in, or waiting for a set of menacing waves to pass by, it was easy just to walk in and float under the sun. We swam, we chatted, we read, we napped – Kwaz and I and our new friends Raul and the Germans – and felt like we were really on vacation.

The last day we got a late start; around 1 pm I believe. But what do you expect when you get home at 8 am? Our one task for the day was a little different than the previous two days: we were going to get tattoos. Kwaz and I had talked about wanting new ones and possibly getting them together in India, but I think we were both not convinced this would actually happen until we found ourselves sitting in a tattoo parlor in Baga as they put the stencils on us. It was our last day together until who knows when and, even though our tattoos are individual to each of us, they will still be permanent reminders of our trip and, more importantly, our friendship. We were both so happy with the results and highly recommend Krish Tattoos to anyone thinking about getting one in Goa. Kwaz got an outline of India on her wrist, beaufitully drawn in an elegant thin line, which I will not explain the reasons behind (explaining a tattoo is for each person to decide themselves) but I will say that it is so fitting and I’m so happy for her for getting it. I got my trip commemorative tattoo, the one I knew I would get when I left but had no idea what it would end up being, hoping that the right design would come to me at the right time, and it definitely did. I love it. And I will explain it in a separate post.

We celebrated our new tattoos with glasses of wine and a repeat dinner of our favorite meal from our favorite place: gimlettes and chicken vindaloo with jeera rice and naan. This chicken vindaloo is the spiciest thing we ate in all of India in the best way. Freaking delicious, we couldn’t get enough of it (obviously since we had the same thing two nights in a row).

Kwaz left the next day. I still had a full day in Goa before I left on a night bus for Hampi, which I spent taking care of business and eating leftover vindaloo in the hostel. It felt strange to be in India without her. We may have gone 8 months without seeing each other but as soon as we were reunited it felt like just a week. It can be challenging to travel with another person for 2 weeks straight no matter how good of friends you are, especially in a place like India, but it never was with Kwaz. In fact two weeks didn’t feel like enough. Which is why, when I got a WhatsApp that due to a bad connection she had missed her flight home and was stuck in Delhi till Monday, the first thing I did was look up flights from Goa to Delhi to go hang out in the hotel with her till she could actually leave. I didn’t end up ditching my Hampi plans for my best friend and a pool, which in the end was probably the right decision for me, but damn was I tempted.

Kwaz, I know that you’ve wanted to go to India forever, and whether I was the excuse to see India or India was the excuse to see me, I am just so happy you came and had a great time traveling with you, even if India was a two-faced bitch sometimes.

Time for South India: Mumbai

I’m going to breeze over Agra and our return to New Delhi. Basically after the Taj we got back to Delhi as fast as possible. Agra is another busy North Indian city that we’d been told wasn’t worth spending much time in, so taking into consideration our exhaustion from the past week and Kwaz’s lingering illness we decided to just get the hell out of there. It was the right move. We enjoyed a relaxing night at the wonderfully modern Madpackers Hostel – we ordered in Lebanese food, I did some “work,” and Kwaz got a ton of sleep to finally get healthy – before our flight down to Mumbai the next morning.

In the two weeks Kwaz and I traveled India together we had inadvertently split them down the middle: one week North, one week South. Mumbai was the beginning of our South India chapter, and we had high hopes for how this week would go.

Mumbai was a breath of fresh air. It revived and reinvigorated us.

Starting with our lovely AirIndia flight, complete with Bollywood movie and veg or non-veg food options, and the well-signed airport, to the very kind man who helped us find the AirBnb apartment we would be staying in, even calling the owner himself to get accurate directions and giving us his number in case we needed anything, things were looking up.

We sprung for an AirBnb in the chic Bandra West neighborhood. We spent the afternoon wandering up and down the oceanside walk past the apartment complexes where all the rich and famous live – Mumbai’s Hollywood Hills – and tasting local street snacks of pani puri. We were shocked to get 6 per order for just 45 Rs, and even more shocked when we expressed how we didn’t realize we got so many and we should have split an order and they actually tried to give us our money back. People were so kind in Mumbai! After a bottle of wine in the apartment and a couple of hours in a dive bar that felt like home, Tito’s Garage, we were declaring our love for South India.

Our only full day in Mumabi was dedicated to one thing: Elephanta. Elephanta to Kwaz was like the Taj Mahal to me. This is the number one thing that she wanted to see on this trip and after going there I totally get why.

But first, we had breakfast at a bagel place. BAGELS. Sure they were no Jersey bagels but still, a little taste of home. Especially since we got one with avocado on it. Then we took an UBER to the ferry terminal. Were we really in India? The terminal was in the colonial part of town so the surrounding architecture was a mixture of European styles. The whole morning was a jarring difference from the India we had seen in the previous week.

An hour boat ride – always an enjoyable way to travel – and a 30 minute uphill climb brought us to the main cave on Elephanta Island. Standing in front of the row of pillars carved into a rock face imbued me with a sense of anticipation. “There’s something amazing through there.” And there was.

Art and Architecture of India came to life around me. We entered a hall of columns, rows of them carved into the cave as if they were holding up the whole mountain above us. Off to the right was the shrine for the linga, with its protectors carved into the walls around it. Images from class came rushing back to me and I smiled in the realization that I was actually there, seeing this in person. All around the cave were reliefs depicting Hindu scenes, most revolving around Shiva, and even though they were in various states of ruin I could still see the immense detail and care that went into creating them. We read the little guide Kwaz picked up and played “find the detail” with each one. At the center of it all was the impressive and emotive sculpture of the three heads of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector, and Shiva the Destroyer. We stared at it for a long time, and no matter where we were in the cave, my eyes kept going back to this amazing piece. It commanded attention in its scale but allowed contemplation in its expression.

We explored the secondary caves but felt like we’d already seen everything we came for in the main one. Elephanta was the experience that was missing from the Taj Mahal; actually being there was a level above seeing the pictures. It was like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu – places that I knew would be stunning but the reality of walking around far exceeded the expectation. And for Kwaz, it was a life dream come true. I felt honored to be there with her for such an emotional moment, and seeing her reaction to this place only made me appreciate it even more.

The return ferry dropped us off somewhere else in Mumbai. It smelled rank of fish and with barely any taxis in sight we totally overpaid just to get out of there. The ride back to our area was a surprise, and fascinating in its own way; it was the other Mumbai. We drove through slums like I’ve never seen before. I felt almost guilty looking out the windows of the taxi, knowing this was a part of the city I wouldn’t have purposefully gone to but oddly happy (happy isn’t the right word, but I don’t know if I could ever find a right one) to have accidentally passed through it. Structures that can only be described as shacks were piled one on top of the other, with dirt paths weaving into and through them, hovering over the edge of a river or pushed up to the sidewalk of the main thoroughfare. People were everywhere, and so was garbage. It was overload in every way, literal and sensory.

To decompress from the day, the overwhelming traffic, and the intensity of what we just saw, we went to endless sangria happy hour before our flight. It was a quick trip to Mumbai but one that left us wanting more. We agreed that the next trip to India we would fly directly to Mumbai and move South from there.

The Taj Mahal

The other day Kwaz asked me why I wanted to come to India. My answer: the Taj Mahal.

The Taj was one of the pillars that outlined my route. I learned about it in multiple classes – I did take Art and Architecture of India in college – and was at one point able to describe its layout so well that my professor thought I’d been there. So I didn’t mind at all the 5 am wake up to try to beat the crowd and the heat (a successful strategy), I was finally going to see the Taj Mahal.

It looked exactly like it did in the slides I studied. This was the cause of both my amazement and my disappointment.

The Taj Mahal is perfect. It is pristine, gorgeous, impressive. It is every positive adjective you’ve ever heard people say about it. The first glimpse of it through the entry gate’s tall arch takes your breath away, and seeing the full expanse of the garden procession to the hovering building just increases the sense of awe.

It was the same garden that I had described so well, with its four rivers leading to the central fountain and its perfectly manicured lawn and bushes. Maybe that’s why I expected so much from it and was sad to feel so little. The procession leading to the Taj was supposed to feel like an honor to walk up with the building growing ever larger, but I just felt like it was any other walk. The building looked impressive but that was apparent from the start. The walk was more focused on platforms from which the best pictures could be taken. I yearned to know what it looked like with the original trees and fruit plants obscuring the view, causing the white bulbous domes to appear floating above Paradise.

Once I reached the Taj Mahal itself there was no way to stop staring at it. Every stone, every inlay, every detail, and every angle of the building commanded my attention. I ran my hands over perfectly carved flowers in vases, wondering how it was possible to create such a delicate image in such a hard material. I slowly walked the circle around Mumtaz Mahal’s and Shah Jahan’s tombs, my eyes scanning from the woven stone circle around them all the way up the ceiling. The amount of detail was astounding. When I made it back outside it lightly rained, a strange occurrence considering the bright blue sky, which made the stone plinth reflective (and slippery). I took my time walking back around from the river side to the garden, taking in the four corner towers, the side buildings (both beautiful in their own right), and the garden approach from this side. It is an amazing complex. It is Paradise on Earth, as intended.

After we finished our tour – I recommend the audio guide, it was informative but not long-winded – I sat on a bench to the side of the center fountain, staring at the Taj. It deserves nothing less than quiet contemplation, this perfect compilation of art and architecture.

After we left the Taj I expected to feel elated. I had just seen the one thing I wanted to see most in India. Something held me back. The Taj was as expected, and nothing more. There was a lack of an emotional, experiential connection. I remembered Angkor Wat and the feeling I had there, overwhelmed by the greatness that just being in the presence of the structures made me feel. The Taj is beautiful, but it didn’t have the same effect. I suppose that will happen sometimes. I wonder if it’s because I’ve seen its image so many times or seen so many amazing things in the past almost 9 months. Regardless of my slight disappointment, I still think the Taj Mahal is an incredible piece and a must-see, and I am thrilled I made it there.

Happy Holi?

Kwaz and I had been looking forward to Holi since we started planning our India trip – we even moved our arrival back three weeks so the timing was right – so you can imagine our excitement when we put on our white shirts and colorful pants and set out to meet up with our friends from Delhi, who were staying at a different hostel nearby that had arranged for transportation to a celebration out near Amber Fort.

Which is why we were so disappointed when we never found the hostel. The wifi was down that morning, so we were going off of my memory from looking it up the day before. We knew we were in the right area so we started asking guesthouses and tuktuk drivers; either nobody knew this place (it was pretty new) or they pointed us in wrong and different directions. It was an hour before we gave up and took a helicopter ride back to our guest house. We knew they were celebrating there too, so we might as well make it to one Holi party.

This trip ended up being one of the highlights of the day. As we rode around tuktuks and motorcycles pulled up next to us yelling “Happy Holi!” and offering us colored powder. Our first color of the day, but nowhere near our last. We were even okay with being sprayed with blue water by the water-gun-wielding kids. Everything was exciting as the energy in the street grew around us. By the time we got back to the guesthouse we were ready to go, and happy to find the other guests on the roof all getting their colors on. Raman, the awesome manager, instantly fixed our too-clean problem by wiping large handfuls of green, yellow, and pink on our chins, and we joined in helping ourselves and everyone else get covered in color. Happy Holi!

We took to the streets, excited to see what this festival was all about, and headed for Raman’s suggestion of a party at the Tourist Information Center. The entire walk people stopped us to add to our rainbow, every time saying “Happy Holi!” as they put more powder on our faces. This is how people interact on Holi: by rubbing colored powder on first one side of the face, to the chin, and then the other, often followed by a hug and always by a “Happy Holi.” This is also unfortunately one of the reasons Holi has a bad reputation. I’ll get to that in a bit. For now though, we’re walking down the street and motorcycles and cars are pulling over to keep changing our colors.

Then we arrived at the Tourist Center. The beginning of the end of our Holi. Bus loads of Westerners in entirely clean all-white outfits were pouring into the party with their cameras ready. One even took pictures of me, the white girl who was already colorful. Policemen stood guard at the entrance, partly to protect the foreigners and partly to confiscate things like our whiskey, which he was convinced was wine. I’ve never seen such a horribly disapproving look; I thought I might get kicked out of India by this man. But he just kept on his disgusted face and threw it to the side, carefully watching us go inside. Once we made it inside we saw a big rectangular enclosure filled with sort of colorful foreigners, a few trying to dance to the live music that wasn’t nearly as upbeat as we were hoping for. This is the best party to go to? We all stopped and stared. It was where they sent the foreigners, the safe place to be, like we’d been quarantined away from the true Holi happening elsewhere in the city. At the time we were confused, even a little offended, and definitely not into this scene. Where was the excitement, the Bhangra dancing, the showers of powder, the locals?

We preferred the streets, so we left. It was getting later in the day, which means around 11 am, so our trip back to the hostel was a bit tougher than the way out. We started to see why Holi had gotten a bad rap. People were still enthusiastically powdering us but it felt more aggressive. If we stopped walking for more than two minutes we would be surrounded by men and their powder bags; we even got to the point of saying “uh oh” when a new car or bike pulled over and trying to move quickly so we were too far away by the time they could get out. Then the kids showed up with their water guns and pushy hugs and we actually broke out into a run to get away from them.

We needed a break. And some beers. We sought refuge on the roof of our guesthouse, where a cheerful group of teenagers (the restaurant employees) were dancing along to Bhangra music covering each other in green powder. Of course we joined in for a dance or two. We had planned to make it into the Pink City after we finished our beers but the prospect of going back out was too daunting, so we never did end up leaving the roof again.

The more I heard about Holi in both Jaipur and other places the more I realized two things: 1) we actually had a pretty positive day considering the possibilities, and 2) Holi is not for foreigners. We heard stories of girls who had been backed up against a wall, aggressively caressed in places that should not be touched by strangers, and fearfully trapped in groups of men. We heard most foreigners were sent to places like the tourist party so they were protected from the dangers of the day, and if they ventured out to try to find the local celebration it most often did not go well. We heard about policemen hitting people with bamboo canes if they got anywhere near a foreigner. We heard about the dark side of Holi, the reason that Pramod and Raman had told us to not go far from the guesthouse, stay together, and don’t be out on the streets after 12.

We were disappointed. What we had assumed would be a happy festival of vibrant colors had a dark side. Now we know. And considering the stories we heard, we now look back on our Holi experience more positively. We came out of it unscathed, except for the lingering dye on my feet and hair. Pink is the new blonde.

We Saw the Crazy Side of India in Jaipur

We went to Jaipur for one reason: Holi.

We had heard more than once that it was better to celebrate Holi in North India than South, so after consulting with some new hostel friends in Delhi, as well as a map, we landed on Jaipur as being our best option. To give ourselves enough time to celebrate properly, we arrived the day before Holi and left the evening the day after Holi, leaving a day on either end to explore Jaipur before and after the madness.

Or so we thought. We soon learned that the madness is constant in Jaipur. The city is a crazy, loud, congested, overwhelming place. Our tuktuk ride to the East Gate joined a constant stream of plenty of other tuktuks as well as motorbikes, cars, helicopters (their name for bikes pulling a 2-person cart), livestock, and camels. I repeat: camels. I really am in India.

Once inside the gate we slowly made our way through a bazaar, with one side of the street selling spices and the other cheap clothes. Vibrantly colored Holi powder was for sale everywhere. Walking down the sidewalk felt like a sport, like dodgeball but with people. We escaped to a rooftop for lunch; it was a quiet retreat with deliciously spicy food and cold beers, and it was hard to leave. Not realizing how long we’d been there, we didn’t make it to the City Palace in time to go inside, but even walking up to and around the area felt like we saw the Pink City, which is really more of an orange hue, but it was still cool to see an entire city zone painted one color with off-white accents. At least it was in the moments that I could look around me instead of focusing on the chaos I was attempting to move through.

The next day was the main event. Holi was an experience we could have never predicted, and for that it gets its own post. I’ll fast forward now to the day after Holi.

Kwaz got sick. Everyone says you will get sick in India, but for some reason you never believe them, so when it really does happen it sucks. I felt bad I couldn’t make it go away and she felt bad period. But we had one more day in Jaipur before our night train to Agra and she didn’t want to wallow in the sickness, I wouldn’t have either, so we chose to do a calmer tourist activity instead of braving the Pink City streets a second time. I guess we may never see what’s inside the City Palace, but we’re both okay with that.

We chose to get out of Jaipur center to the Amber Fort. Half an hour north of the city, the tuktuk ride to get up there was sightseeing in itself. We drove through a part of town that is home to the lowest caste in India. It looked like a farm emptied out onto the city streets; there were cows and pigs everywhere snacking on the garbage that lined both sides. The smell was strong and unpleasant, and the roads winding and bumpy.

The fort is huge. It sits impressively on top of a hill with Jaipur’s version of the Great Wall snaking out on the hilltops around it. From what we’d heard it would take three or four hours to explore the whole complex; we were done in one. Not to say that Amber Fort isn’t a pretty building that’s worth visiting, it totally is, it just didn’t take long to meander through the various courtyards and buildings. Also the temple was unfortunately closed from 12-4 so we missed out on that. But without a guide it was just up to us to explore at our own will, climbing up down and around to see the turkish baths, mirrored hall, green geometric garden (which was a jarring contrast to its dry tan surroundings), and elevated vistas on top of the walls. The Amber Fort was another historic building that was our playground for the afternoon.

It was the perfect amount of activity and leisurely pace for the day after Holi and the advent of Kwaz’s Delhi belly. On the tuktuk ride back we saw the Water Palace – a building in the middle of the lake, we still have no idea why it’s there and should probably look it up – and we thought we were going to a market, but instead our driver just took us to a textile shop where they told us “looking was free” but clearly just wanted to sell us things. We had no tolerance for this. Take us home now. It was an unfortunate ending to the day that made us happy to get out of Jaipur that evening.

Jaipur was exhausting. It was an entirely different experience than Rishikesh had been and showed us the side of India that people had warned us about. It’s hectic and sensory overload but I can’t fault it for that, I asked for it when I came here, so in some way I’m happy to have made it to Jaipur just to experience that India. And now I’m happy to move on and see other parts of it.