Though my steam was running low by the end, the students and I agreed that the trip was a bit of a mental recharge to engage with where we were living. I spent many hours chatting with the students about their upcoming first graduation ceremony, gender inequality in India, and traveling solo as a female around the world. I pretended to be a guru in a cave on the train, accepting students into my lair (joining me in my double seat) for questions about life and happiness. My answers were usually, "Write about it!"Read More
Imagine an alternate universe that’s accessible by easy flight. A Mars or Twilight Zone with roaming holy cows, instant disease upon the consumption of food, toilets seemingly nonexistent, and pimped out buses roaming the streets. And imagine this place has so much of great appeal: colors, spices, drinks, music, dancing, people, animals, mountains, beaches, and this list fails to find its end. The journey is costly, but the destination is not. And it is nearly impossible to find a side of this culture bland…in any way. India is a place for me to find beauty, tragedy, and examine what is “necessary”. Many destinations make sense to the Western mind (I was instantly down with African and South America), but India for many leaves us cowering or flailing or blinking our eyes repeatedly, trying to figure out, “Why?! Wah-wa-wah-WHY?!” This shock to the system is harsh and often welcomed enthusiastically by travelers jones’ing for something refreshing.
This is one of the reasons why I won’t be coming back to India for a while. I have to preserve the Subcontinent as something unknown and confusing, keep it in mind as a throbbing, spazing, flowing, technicolored fantasy world that is possible to traverse and experience in reality. To be all knowing about the ways of India, I fear, would be to take the mystery out of this world. It’s the constant quest for knowledge with the joys of an infinite library.
I spent my last days in India hanging out in the ‘hood of Pahar Ganj among the novices, the immigrants, the locals, the travelers who never left, the familial frequenters who find the area comforting…and I knew I wasn’t any of them. I had my friends and the necessary haggling skills. I was stained by henna and dirt, sweating from every pore. My physical presence was in Delhi; my soul was not.
This is not a place for me to be but to remember like a past life and wonder if it really was. And one day, when I make that fantasy ride back for whatever demanding purpose, I’ll be floored once again, uncomfortable, and in need of the necessary transformation to deal with the organized and beautiful chaos of India.
I brought my recently finished book to my friend’s shop and exchanged it for a beautiful, purple scarf; this wasn’t really customary, but I think they wanted to do me a favor. With a telling hug, I knew, as did India, that I’d be a while. On this endless path, I’m learning where I don’t belong, and through the eventual process of elimination, I’ll soon find where the chaos makes sense to me.
So much about Delhi intrigues me. The spice markets and the grand monuments. The tree lined roads and innumerable modes of transportation. I have friends in Delhi and enough knowledge of certain neighborhoods to make me feel somewhat comfortable with this harsh environment. I can’t say I enjoy the street side groping (by any stretch of the imagination), which occurred to me twice on this trip, but I take pleasure in being in the city nonetheless. But we moved on for a new, and arguably better, state where history slaps you in the face and leaves you twitching in awe. Our whole group seemed pumped for Rajasthan, and with due reason. The last 12 kilometers of our full day drive towards Jaipur revealed the beauty that is Amber Fort, a scattering of structures that span very dry mountaintops and calls to mind the Great Wall of China and Indiana Jones movies. But we were to experience that wonder the next day, so we headed to our lush hotel and the palaces of the city.
We took an audio-guided tour of the City Palace, which is never as satisfying as the hopeful tourist anticipates, but upon finishing the succession of numbered stops and enthusiastic explanations, I plopped down at the gate to view the outside world for a bit. Upon entering the City Palace, we were bombarded with hawkers and beggars who were enthusiastic and as forcefully pitiful as was humanly possible. As I watched them all from afar, away from the baseball-cap-wearing, touring public, I saw them in their element: eating popsicles and giggling around the street, relaxing at the nearby drink stand, enjoy the balmy weather and watching the birds dart around the sky, Hitchcock style. One baba in brightly colored cloth tried to make eye contact with me for some change, the kind of eye contact that makes you think he’s trying to suck out your essence with his optical powers. Freaky. But it was another world away from foreign eyes.
The nighttime brought a buffet of good smells right to our noses in the beautiful courtyard of our hotel. And with a vocal performance and puppet show following the meal, we truly felt like we were “on vacation.” Though we were paying a hefty price for the meal and encouraged to tip the puppeteer like Rockefellers would, our entire tour group could be together without the hassle of avoiding skewed restaurant suggestions, transporting everyone on the cheap, and searching for high quality, semi-authentic entertainment. Sometimes going with the tour flow ain’t so bad.
And then, the following day, we saw Amber Fort...wow...
Upon reaching our luxurious hotel in Delhi, I practically sprinted for the area I know best, the backpacker district…Pahar Ganj Main Bazaar. This one stop shopping/lodging/dining/etc. paradise for budget travelers was the first place I planted my feet and bags during my India visit last year, thinking this would be the perfect launching point for both the mountains as well as the iconic Taj and Ganges stops. Surrounded by fellow, like-minded vagabonds, I figured I’d be in good company.
Instead, I befriended a shop owner on the street, while looking ever-so confused during a roti purchase, who convinced me to go on my incredible Kashmir trek. With this connection, I experienced an enlightened perspective on Pahar Ganj and India in general that surpassed what I could have wrangled from a late night conversation in a hostel’s rooftop restaurant.
And so, with our arrival to Delhi, I made an effort to find my old friend and reminisce in the comfortable squalor of the Main Bazaar, which is the main drag where one could buy fruit, internet minutes, a new cheap wardrobe, lodging for $1.50 per night, and I’m certain a slew of unspeakable things. Immediately, I received a cold drink, a quality lunch, and all the insider information I could hope for.
In a place like Delhi (and tourist India in general), it truly pays to know someone without an agenda. To get anywhere or anything in this country, one must understand the art of the haggle, know who to ask for recommendations for anything, and realize (and accept) that everyone has connections for potential commissions on their end. An unbiased opinion hardly exists.
Enter local friend. Making a local friend with no personal agenda is a treasure to pamper, enjoy, and maintain for years to come. I credit my comfort with India to befriending these people who want you to know the real charm of their complex country.
The last time I left India, just eight months ago, I related the effect the country had on me to a scruffy, irritating, acidic kiss from which I recoiled…and then later longed for. As the horns screamed around our taxi from the airport, I turned to Chris and said, “Home Sweet Home.” He nodded.
This place, upon first impact, is not exactly this easy to embrace and appreciate. In fact, the heat radiating from every passing vehicle and the sun was blistering. Dust already covered my face. The passing vistas revealed some atrocious living conditions, but having already been here on a combined three trips, we were aware of what to expect and how things work in the Subcontinent.
I asked Chris, “If this were your first time in India, what do you think you’d be in shock of right now?”
From this started a sporadic conversation of things that described the crazy differences between our American understandings and the realities of India.
The modes of transportation spanning from cars, bikes, and auto rickshaws to camels, horses, and the occasional very hot elephant.
The near absence of road rules and the organized chaos of traffic flow.
The smog that covers the entire city and reflects back in the eye as blinding light.
The smell: a mix of feces, incense, flowers, chicken coups, dirt, trash, spices, delicious food, bonfires, and a few other things indiscernible.
The brightly colored sarees, Sikh turbans, and fully covering clothing in +40 degree Celsius heat.
The red, rotting teeth edging most open mouths.
The roughly one inch space between our taxi and all vehicles surrounding ours while moving at 40mph.
How is a place so rough to our senses so lovable?
India. Over one billion people can’t be wrong.
It was out of obligation that I boarded the planes and trains south again after Kashmir. Having already experienced the world of sticky, smelly, trash-ridden India last year in Chennai, I intended this trip to the Subcontinent to be dedicated to the mountains. And having already satiated that new dream to see monster peaks and smell thin, pure air, I left Srinagar to return to Delhi, which had miraculously become a habitable environment since my last visit. If you recall, upon my first day or two in the country, I jumped from restaurant to rooftop eatery for AC and air flow needs, avoiding the unbearable temperatures in conjunction with sky high humidity. This time, not just dusk brought peaceful climates, though the city still remained a feces-heaped jungle gym. After running from my taxi driver to avoid his supposed scams, I went immediately to revisit my Kashmir boys, all of whom by this time of evening had already abandoned their daily work duties to pursue the enjoyment that keeps them gleeful in a city that would rape even Barney of his pleasant demeanor. They all began to congregate at the travel agency of Ashika, ready to spend their daily earnings on drinks at the swanky bar across the street. When I rolled up, the boys and I spent a quick moment talking about my recent adventure and what my plans were from that moment on. They offered to help me find a better hostel than I was aiming towards, with my mind clenched on pinching pennies and staying in a $2 roach infestation, and eventually this help led to yet another invitation to stay at their abode for a few nights. I was grateful and prepared for more untainted Indian fun. I dropped my bags at the agency, and we took off on the main backpacker drag to get some chai and see Mudi, my friend-by-chance from the bread stand. Delhi and the Pahar Ganj area suddenly seemed unthreatening and downright welcoming. It felt like a home base where I had friends to come back to, all whom understood my humor and wanted me to feel comfortable. Sitting over chais, Mudi demanded that I visit his shop and purchase something special from his selection of top quality Kashmiri crafts. I had no intention of spending money post-wallet gouging trek through the mountains, but I humored him as, I guess, a thank you for all his help with my previous two weeks of travel.
Ashika sat in the corner texting until boredom sent him a-wandering, I leaned back on a pile of wall hangings, and Mudi employed himself and a friend to display the many works of woven art that stacked his walls with color. As if chai not only wakes you up and creates a friendly, social atmosphere, I suppose they believe it also lubricates the wheels of commerce, since he called in for two more rounds of the milky tea as I scratched my chin saying, "I don't need rugs, and I have NO ROOM in my darned backpack." A young boy arrived both times at the door with cone shaped cups filled with the muddy stimulant suspended in a wire contraption for doorstep delivery. Mudi refused to let this potential sale slip past him and was determined to send me away with something gorgeous and score himself a few rupees as well. As the floor quickly layered with piece after piece of handmade tapestries, I imagined all the numerous carpets and rugs that adorned the floors of my Indianapolis home, all bound for the Clark children when our parents downsized. Since I've come to enjoy bringing home bigger items than small, I said "nay" to the small trinkets and focused on the prize of an area rug for my future domicile. Realizing there were a few I liked, even one that "called to me," I began the timeless art of flexing my hidden haggling muscles.
After numerous markets in Europe, relentless salesmen in Africa, and the insistent beggars, poachers, hustlers, businessmen, and little children in India, I was, at this point, a champion negotiator. One of the many cultural differences between most of the world and America is this sport of haggling, where vendors take advantage of the language barrier or their sometimes cheaply-made yet memorable souvenirs to gouge tourists in an evasive attack of the stamina. Upon first coming to a foreign land, one can only assume they are completely ignorant to the mindset, customs, yadda yadda yadda…of that country; therefore, they don't engage in the verbal struggle for goods and money in efforts to not upset or be insensitive to whatever of that which they are unaware. Once said traveler becomes aware of the local scams, the daily rituals of the inhabitants, and the ways of commerce in those parts, it becomes a test of the travel skills, a "Do you have what it takes" challenge to prove your competence and adaptability as a global nomad.
By this time in my trip, I had said "no" to possibly hundreds of salespeople on most continents, and knowing how people respond to your rejection gives you the knowledge of how to get what you want for the bottom price. Yes, these people make their living on marginal profits every day, and the occasional traveler's first price cave-in can mean the world to a struggling vendor…but if I made the act of acquiescing to every dishonest sales attempt my charitable deed for the entire trip…I wouldn't have made it out of Europe with a positive debit balance. And yes, these people do this every day, especially those that line the tourist districts, and their expertise on price-gouging is often unmatched; but there's a level of respect that can be gained by these vendors toward tourists who have the resolve to be a part of the game.
"Mudi, I don't need rugs! I only want maybe one…that silk one is really nice." "Do you like the geometric designs better than the floral ones?," he said as he and his partner held up different motifs, making a pile of the rugs I didn't hate for a possible purchase. "But, guys, I don't need that huge size…I just- - -I like the darker florals, I guess." "What about this one…I know you like this…Ok, I'll put it to the side. How about this 6 x 9 foot one. This is the best price you can get anywhere in the world. My Dad made these rugs…no middle man here…you can even sell this when you get home…make a big profit! Maybe you should be an importer!" "Ha, I don’t know if that's my niche. How much for all these together?" "Three rugs and the wall hanging?," he taps on his chin and then the calculator. "No, not the wall hanging…I already have one." "You want this one, I know you do. It's too beautiful. You have to take it."
A round of "yes's" and "no's" resonate around the room. I prevail.
"Alright, this is the final price…for all three rugs, and if you get all three, including the big one, I'll take care of the shipping myself." "What if I don't want the big one?" "Then it will be much more expensive per item and shipping won't be included."
Some chatty minutes passed. Some silent minutes loomed. We struck a deal, and I crawled on my hands and knees on top of my new rugs, all piled on top of the tens of rugs I rejected. Mudi took care of the payment with my withered MasterCard at his friend's machine, as I enjoyed top quality fibers under my dirty body. Sitting there with a chai in stocking feet, I envisioned the room this rug would next occupy. I was making plans for a bedroom I had yet to find and a life that swirled in the abyss of time after this voyage's completion. Plans of the future were yet to be determined, and it was thrilling to know all my options hung on those that would or could encounter me abroad. Wherever those plans took me, though, I knew at the end of the night, I would end my evenings walking across the rug underneath me on the way to my future bed.
When the sale was wrapped, we reconvened with the boys at the bar, where Mudi revealed that he had lost some serious money in the deal he struck with me, unaware that shipping the personal parcel would cost a load. Part of me felt a little guilty, but I responded with an evil smile that he found amusing. After some beers and Indian appetizers, we piled our bodies and my backpacks onto a cycle rickshaw and traversed the main chowk (busy street) to reach their apartment. Time lapsed between our arrival and dinner time with the viewing of Indian game shows and what seemed like bad reality TV. It's everywhere; you can't escape it. The entire world is mesmerized by watching their fellow man embarrass themselves on TV. Ah, the global common denominator audience…it doesn’t take much to entertain us these days. Mudi presented us with a freshly prepared meal of rice, spiced chicken curry, and the additional green concoction that often appears on an Indian meal platter…ingredients or origin of the mixture unknown. Even though I chose to top my mound of rice with meatless curry sauce, the boys selected the choicest pieces of flesh and bone to throw on my plate. Hospitality was an innate sense for them that required no thought . My lips tingled from the chili and fingers were stained yellow from the rest of the florescent spices. I had a gorgeous night of sleep, finally out of tundra cold and harm's way, and after their insisted remarks, I vowed to stay one more day in Delhi before leaving on a train towards the big Taj and a, once again, lonely India.
Indiana is not a place where you need to worry about gripping the purse at your side or walking cautiously to your car at night with mase at the ready. This lack of high thrills and danger may be one reason why some say it's a boring place to live. In fact, I think it's worth the money to see a spy/martial arts/thriller movie in the theaters, just for that walk to the car at the evening's end. I know I'm not a Bond or Chan, but something makes me feel like I've got a battlefield to face when the double doors close off the movie popcorn smell behind me. The bushes could be covering a group of black-outfitted ninjas, or a sniper on the roof may point his laser between my unprotected shoulder blades. I often do a skipping walk to my car, zig-zagging in between cars, while shouting to my friends that I'll call them tomorrow. I can't go to Steak'n'Shake now; there's a hit out on me. At the sight of the hawkers and scamming taxi drivers at the international flight terminal, I got the same anxious jitters and uncapped the pen in my hand as a makeshift weapon (that is, until I could located the bottle opener in my bag), held low at my side. Upon leaving the protection of the airport, it's hard not to feel like a potential victim of every trick on the streets. Amplifying this sensation of worry would be the Lonely Planet side stories, warning naive travelers of moments when others let their guards down and lost money and lives. I forgot the feeling I left with from my last India experience and stuck my nose at my trust in a well-highlighted guide book.
After dozing off the exhaustion of two sleepless nights and a sun-scorched day in the desert, I cut through the smelly, humid air of the Pahar Ganj district, bee-lining it to one recommended restaurant after the other, not even hungry but ordering a $.05 piece of bread or drink to validate my indulgence of their AC.
And the I started to make the most shameful of travel accessories, the day-to-day itinerary. It didn't feel right, but, hey, when your own vulnerability consumes you, control is sought by any means. I booked a bus to Manali, a destination chosen because it was colder; reasoning stops there.
Equipped with an LP, an itinerary, and an unhealthy distrust in everyone around me, I patrolled those seedy streets once more before my eighteen hour bus ride into the foothills of the Himalayas. India is its own world, in appearance, in movement, in the way things work and the way they can lead to the next fantastical moment. I hate to try and use cliche phrases or vague generalizations to describe a place I want others to experience on the magic carpet of my words. So I'm not gonna say, "Um, wow, it was dirty and smelly and gross."
Instead, imagine a street lined by buildings that have no order, uniformity, or evidence of being cleaned in the last fifty years. Power lines and wires stretched above the lanes as if a massive electric spider constructed a floating civilization above the puddled and filthy ground. Humans of all ages and professions, dogs, cats, rats, cows, bikes, rickshaws, and elephants move about, to their own agendas, all while amazingly dancing in time out of oncoming, chaotically unpredictable traffic; like a Visa CheckCard commercial until someone sight-seeing or mind-boggled by their surroundings sends a cyclist off track and into a Kashmir apple vendor.
Thinking of both my health (mainly avoiding Delhi belly) and the astoundingly low cost of eats, I stopped at stood, confused, in front of an ash-covered bread stand, hoping to score some tasty goods with the nine rupees jingling in my board shorts. A stranger bailed me out of a 'Lost in Translation' moment (three rupees a chapati, three chapatis for the road) and then surprised me with his hold on the English language.
Thinking I was ordering my lunch, he, my new friend Mudi, invited me to join him for chow at his shop and inquired about my India plans. I thought this was one of those moments I was read up and prepared for, thanks to an LP warning box; he mentioned Kashmir. RING THE ALARM!!! A SCAM! Oh, the nerve of these Kashmiri poachers...why I let him in far enough to start the schpeal...wasting my last hours in Delhi. His kindness made me reflect mild interest and appreciation on the outside, but I was working on an escape route inside that would match the suave of his approach. And then he took me to a travel agent, his roommate and lifelong buddy, where the pitch continued.
The previous day, I rolled my eyes and ran from any chattering stalker who mentioned a leisurely trip to Kashmir, knowing that most of these men were involved in an old trick that sends travelers to the tip of India cheaply and corners them into paying boat loads (or, in this case, house boat loads) to do anything else.
Ashika, the agent, made his case by pointing at the numerous pictures and newspaper articles on the wall, claiming not only his company's legitimacy, but their sky-high level of satisfaction from previous travelers. And then they proceeded to call one happy customer after the other, one being an American woman of 24 traveling alone who was at the family house boat...nice hand, my friends. Each reference affirmed my hopes that these Delhi hooligans weren't crooks by any stretch of the imagination.
My LP laid open on my lap to the page quoting Bill Clinton in 2000: Kashmir is probably the most dangerous place in the World.
Comforting. The minutes disintegrated, and my bus departure time tested me to make the right decision for my safety, to cut the right wire, to choose the right pill. There was something about these guys and their effortless charisma, not to mention addictive humor; it seemed like they didn't really care which way I swayed but that I enjoy myself, though knowing Kashmir was the answer to my big travel dreams.
It's true; I didn't come for the India of urine stains and city smog. I had taken nine steps toward the mountains of my favorite books, and this major move seemed like the final, appropriate choice for the tenth step. More of their friends came and went, jokes and friendly punches thrown, and chai after chai flew down our traps while they laughed at my distressed decision making process..."If you think too much, nothing will happen." My shoulders lowered simultaneously with the rise of a grin, and the invisible NO I had hovering above me, like a Sim City player indicator, faded, leaving me bare and ready for the adventure ahead.
High fives all around. The itinerary became a bookmark in the Lonely Planet I closed for two weeks. I was refreshed and oddly more comfortable with the new plan. I watched as Ashika took care of the business of buying my unused bus ticket, booking a flight, and telling his family in Srinagar I was on my way to their house boat. This tiny room full of boys extended and invitation to stay in their apartment that night, along with their friend from Holland, Lika, who had known the rowdy bunch for years and was in town to visit them. Not that they didn't give me a good gut feeling of security, their company's reputation hanging on the positive treatment of their customers, but Lika's presence made it easier to accept and explain the choice to those who may be skeptical from afar.
Gut instincts led to belly laughs and one of the best moments in my trip. When it comes to social moments of joy on this journey, none top the ones that make me wish I had a camera embedded in my forehead. These are times I know I'll want to remember in sight, spirit, and detail, but pulling out a camera would ruin that which is most priceless of the moment at hand. Those next twelve hours included interesting conversations over coffee, games and a few beers on a rooftop over Delhi, and sitting on the floor in a small room with five other people, fingers slick with orange cooking oil and lips tingling from the spices of home-cooked meals, parted in smiles.
The boys were childhood friends and all had an air of being naturally intelligent and downright gifted; they absorbed us seamlessly into their fermented dynamic in the way only instant comrades can. They impersonated every nationality under the hot Delhi sun, told embarrassing stories of each other, gave me a 3am lesson in making Kashmiri tea, and welcomed me to the Himalayas, pointing to Mudi's colossal nose, also known as K2. We slept like pick-up sticks, scattered across the floor, each of us pretending the billowing AC was mountain air off the Karakorum range of their homes...and my new destination.