Sunday, May 20, 2007

Rishikesh to Delhi, and Agra

So, our friends Sjelle, Tracy, and Jen arrived in Rishikesh a couple of days before we left:

We had a joyful reunion, and spent a couple of day wandering around Rishikesh, shopping and eating and enjoying each others' company, as we hadn't seen each other in nearly a month and had lots of catching up to do. :)
Rishikesh is a very cool, but very strange place. It is up in the mountains, high up the holy River Ganges, in a luscious green area that you would think would be really clear and fresh. But no, for some reason, the air is always polluted and dusty--I'm not sure if it is just the pollution from cars and jeeps, or from all of the constant burning of offerings that is being done at the riverside. And while you are sitting down on the beach by the river, surrounded by mountains, it is so quiet and peaceful, you feel like you are in such a holy place, but walk up the path back to the main road, and you are trying not to get run down by a jeep while squished against a cow, and there are horns blaring and people and dogs everywhere.... But one of the nicest things about Rishikesh was that is was filled with serious pilgrims. This is not a place that you come to party--you may come to do yoga, or to meditate, but if anyone has managed to find a beer in Rishikesh, I'd like to know. I couldn't even get a bottle of contact solution.
Puja in Rishikesh:

Snake charmer:

But eventually, Jon and I had to leave our pals and head to Delhi to meet up with Sara and Michael, who had already gone there a couple of days ahead of us. We had a blissfully smooth train ride (A/C makes all the difference!) and arrived at the Anoop Hotel on the Main Bazaar in Pahar Ganj. Now, they had warned me that this area was pretty full on, but wow. Picture your wildest dream of a cramped, crowded, crazy Indian street, hawkers yelling at you, and kids and dogs and cows, shops lining both sides and the street so narrow that only rickshaws and bikes can get down it, and that is the Main Bazaar in Delhi. But did I care? Hell no, cause I had a hotel room with air conditioning, baby!!! Oh, yeah, I did. Not only that, but there was a TV as well. So, it was dirty and disgusting and the staff was a little, um, sleazy, but I thought it was just about the grandest room I'd ever seen. And for the pricey equivalent of $13 a night, we were paying well for our luxuries.
The greatest thing about Delhi was, without a doubt, the Cafe Coffee Day, where you can sit in a Starbucks-esque lounge and order coffee drinks, desserts, and sandwiches, and pretend that you are not in a third world country. I logged in some serious hours there, especially once I started getting sick again and swore off Indian food altogether. The whole city was a mass of contradictions, though--at times all of the craziness and bustle was so wild and exhilarating, and I was so thrilled to be in a big city again, and at others it was intimidating and exhausting and I felt so fatigued I just wanted everyone to disappear. These feelings swung back and forth the whole time I was there, as did my surroundings; at one moment, you can be in a really dirty, poor, overwhelming part of the city where everyone is trying to accost you and drag you into their shops, and then you can hop in a rickshaw and minutes later discover an upscale neighborhood, full of expats and fancy shops, and a grocery store full of imported foods.
On one particular day the four of us ventured into Old Delhi in search of shopping opportunites, and found ourselves wandering down tiny, twisting dark alleyways with no real idea of where we were headed. We saw a few men here and there, who stared at us like we were aliens, but not many. We eventually came to a more crowded section, and as we made our way through, I noticed that the reaction to me and Sara was way stronger here--where we had been getting stares throughout all of India, here the stares were much more confrontational, and, well, more than a little disquieting. And I kept feeling hands bumping against me--just like an accident, you know, but after it happened about 12 times I figured it wasn't really accidental. And then I realized--there were no women anywhere. We were walking through streets full of men! I was just thinking about how weird this was when I saw one--a woman in a burkha. And then I realized, not only were we far from the beaten path, in a 'hood few tourists make it to, but it was also what appeared to be a fairly devout Muslim one. That explained the stares, but didn't make it any less uncomfortable.
Now, I know that every culture has its pros and cons, and we've certainly got our problems, but I have to say, this trip has really, really made me appreciate everything I have as a Western woman. We have so much freedom, and we take it all for granted. I look at the ease with which we walk through our lives in New York and I am so grateful for the life I lead. I don't mean for that to sound condescending or like I'm looking down on someone else's culture--I'm sure most women out there wouldn't want to trade away their own culture for mine!--but I'm just saying I have a newfound appreciation for aspects of my home that I never thought twice about before. Maybe that's the flipside of what travel does for you--opens your mind to other ways of life, and makes you see your own in a whole new light.
Anyway, after walking for a while and coming to a more diverse section, we found a street of food shops boasting parathas and thali, and, against our better judgement (which SHOULD have been protesting much more loudly, as we had ALL been laid very low by India's food already), we sat down and gorged ourselves on spicy, greasy food, which they kept piling higher on our plates as we'd finish. It was SO GOOD. And then, as I stopped eating, I could feel it. All of that spice, sitting in my stomach. Burning. Like a gigantic fiery ulcer. And I knew I had made a horrible mistake--one which was confirmed several hours later. Sigh. Oh, India.
Our remaining days in Delhi were pretty much a blur of shopping, though we did take time out to go to a real bar--complete with cheese fries--and to see Spiderman 3, which made me miss New York SO BAD!!! But going to the movies was SUCH a treat, and this is one of the reasons I liked Delhi; even though parts of it are so so crazy they'll make you want to claw your eyes out, you can always escape when you have to, to a movie or Cafe Coffee Day or whatever.

On our second to last day, Jon and I took a bus to Agra, making the requisite pilgrimmage to see the Taj Mahal. Now, I have always wanted to see the Taj, ever since I discovered it in a calendar photo when I was a kid. It was so beautiful, something about it just captivated me. Now, I'm an adult, and a little cynical, so I was completely prepared for it to be less than fulfilling. I mean, how can something live up to so many years of expectations, right?

Wrong. I cannot, no matter how hard I try, describe how beautiful it is in words. No photo can do it justice. The place is magical, it truly is. I wanted to stay forever, to just prop myself somewhere where I could stare at it all the time, and never move again. My eyes couldn't get enough. And the part that makes it so wonderful is that it was all for love. I couldn't help but think, what must it have been like to love someone that much? Or to be loved that much? But the saddest, most heartbreaking part is that she never got to see it. I have to think that if he loved her with such intensity, though, he must have shown her in other ways when she was still alive.

It was a totally blissful couple of hours. Oh, except that we had to remove our shoes, as in every temple or mosque, and walk around barefoot, ew:

But other than that, I was totally content, even in the oppresive Indian heat, because the thing was just that awesome. If you are ever in India, it does not matter how much effort it requires--go and see the Taj Mahal. You will not regret it.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Still in India, Part 2

Which brings us to Rishikesh, the yoga capital of India, the destination of the Beatles on their Indian adventure, and one of the holiest cities in India, right at the top of the Ganges. Our room has a balcony directly over the wide, beautiful river, and we are completely surrounded by ashrams, saddhus, pilgrims doing puja on the river, constant chanting, and other general holiness. It is a very full-on city, too, with tones of motorbikes and cows and dogs and beggars and dust and pollution, but also a beautiful one.
The view from our hotel:

At dinner with Barbie, from the ashram:
Let me pause here to add a note about health and hygeine. I have, officially, broken every rule in the "Staying Healthy While Travelling 3rd World" booklet that the tropical diseases doctor gave me. I have walked barefoot in all kinds of places, drank water, eaten salads and fresh fruits and vegetables, eaten street food, shared my water bottle with anyone who asked, and played with dogs. I swam not only in the strictly forbidden freshwater bodies of water, but I actually fully immersed myself, 3 times, in the Ganges. And this is the point at which, I'm afraid, that along with several lifetimes of karma, I wiped out my entire immune system.We had a couple of lovely days--long mountain hikes, frolicking in waterfalls:

and doing yoga on our roof overlooking the Ganges--and then one morning I woke up violently ill. I could not eat or leave the room. I could barely stand. Sara fell ill as well, so Michael and Jon were stuck fetching us water and electrolytes. It was awful. Finally, on the evening of the third day of no food, I left the room for the first time to go to an Italian restaurant and eat a little pasta. I'm still scared of everything I eat, but am taking my antibiotics and hoping for the best.We're thoroughly enjoying Rishikesh, otherwise. We've done lots of shopping, had Ayurvedic massages, and have booked ourselves for cooking classes, and hopefully soon sitar lessons as well. We all do yoga every morning, and are buying lots of books about meditation and spirituality. It is SO much fun to be with a group of people who are so into all of this stuff--and three more friends are joining us tomorrow, yay!