Greetings from a 15+ hour train ride through the heart of India. That’s 15 hours if all goes according to schedule – an unlikely event since trains in India are often delayed. A train that is an hour or two delayed near the beginning of its journey may end up arriving at its final destination three, five, eight or more hours late since the delayed train will constantly stop to allow on-schedule trains to pass by. Our train set off with only a 30 minute delay today, so we shall see what time we arrive!
The temperature continues to rise as our train heads west toward the ornate palaces, mountains and desert of the state of Rajasthan, a preferred location for exotic destination weddings and movie shoots. Babies up and down the train continue to cry, the father and mother of a young family joining us in our train berth (eight beds total) keep playfully smacking their kids, the kids keep responding with jumps from one seat to the other, mischievous grins on their faces as their parents tiredly try to grab the reins of control. I do not envy bringing three small children on a 12+ hour daytime train ride. (Lucky for them it isn’t 15 hours since they jumped on after us.)
After three weeks in India, we have gone through four cities: the gargantuan, traffic-snarled, cosmopolitan megalopolis of New Delhi; the tourist and tout-packed Agra of Taj Mahal fame, the much more serene holy city (and one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world) Varanasi; and we are leaving today from Khajuraho, a small city of 25k, famed across the world for its immaculately well-preserved temples depicting Karma Sutra positions and erotic art.
It’s difficult to comprehend everything we are experiencing. One hour we’re fighting off packs of positively barbarous pre-teens in a local village (this trip is teaching us what a bunch of bastards some kids can be) the next we’re dining with a group of very well-educated, upper-middle class Indians at a restaurant that would be unaffordable for nearly everyone in town (we ate there four times in four days, our dining partners ate there FIVE times in three days!) who espouse at length about film, conservationism, politics, and international travel. And this is kind of what India is. It’s amazing and desperate at the same time. It’s dirty and disgusting and absolutely gorgeous and mind blowing. It’s filled with hustlers after your money, countless lonely, horny men after a thrill they don’t understand how to acquire (SO MANY GUYS EVERYWHERE), and people so nice and welcoming you almost want to weep that you can’t give them back more than they have given you. It’s confusing, maddening, unexplainable, horrifying, stunning, magical, unbelievable, and completely a unique experience outside any of the countries we have already visited.
Many of the travelers we meet are on their second, third, or even 50th (!!!) trips to India and don’t have enough praises to sing about it (of course they have plenty of advice and warnings as well). The travelers who are experiencing India for the first time, well, they tend to be more hesitant. And that’s okay. It’s certainly a learning experience and we are trying to take it day by day without placing too much pressure on ourselves to understand it all at once (or even ever).
So, let’s take it back to Delhi to see how we have been spending our time. After hearing plenty of horror stories about India’s capital, we had a completely pleasent, not at all shocking, 1st week in the country. An Uber from the airport brought us to our AirBnB, our credit cards worked in numerous restaurants, and we met some absolutely amazing people we ended up seeing for few days in a row.
We stayed far away from the tourist/backpacker areas, and subsequently nobody even cared at all we were there. No one was approaching us to buy crappy tourist items, no one was trying to “befriend” us so they could be our guide around town. No one even paid us even so much as a second glance in our neighborhood. Completely unexpected, and a quite pleasant start to the trip!
Other things were more expected, like India’s level of cleanliness. India is covered in shit. Literally shit. Everywhere. Animals roam around seemingly freely on just about every street. Cows are revered so nobody is bumping the bovines with their cars to get them to move, people just lay on their horns until the cows meander away. Cow shit everywhere. Stray dogs everywhere. Subsequently, Manny squeals of “PUPPY!” and “COW!” every minute or two. Goats. Monkeys. Tiny squirrels. Donkeys. Horses. Ox and buffalo. Maybe a camel or three. Elephant! And all of these animals keep shitting in the streets and on the sidewalks. People come by and take the dry cow shit to burn for fires, but, don’t worry, there is still plenty to go around if you want to take some souvenir shit home for yourself. (This place is paradise for flies!)
And the guys piss everywhere. In every city, there seems to be drainage ditches beside the roads/alleys/pathways. You won’t be able to walk fifteen minutes before you find someone pissing in broad view (usually while crouched in the “Asian Squat” which is an impressively covert way to pee) into one of these ditches (which in Varanasi drain right into the holy Ganges, where thousands of people come to bathe, do their laundry, and exercise on a daily basis). There are pubic urinals throughout all of the cities, but there’s no real need for a urinal when you can just piss next to a building on the road, right? Every once in a while you see what looks like human shit, but we have yet to see someone pooping in public. We will let you know the moment we have found this!
Certainly germaphobes will find plenty to fear in India. One generally eats with their hands (hopefully well washed in one of the numerous sinks found inside the restaurants), there are no gloves used in food preparation (or even when receiving a chickenpox vaccine!), people walk around barefoot through heaps of trash and shit and then into the home… But other than a slight case of upset stomach (which may have equally been due to drinking too much the night before), we haven’t had any issues with the food. Maybe a bit of dirt in your diet isn’t so bad?
We spent the first few days exploring our neighborhood and sleeping wayyy too much due to our AirBnB unexpectedly being a cold, dark, damp basement-level dungeon with only one small window. Oh well! One highlight of the first few days was dropping into a packed psychedelic-themed local bar with a full band and lip syncing dancers (who may or may not have been prosititutes according to our Indian friends Jai and Prerita). Great music and everyone treated us like royalty, but the headache-inducing volume meant we had to leave after two beers each.
Our days were spent meandering around in the heat of the city exploring ancient ruins, modern bars, temples, art galleries and museums. A huge veggie meal on the street shared between the two of us cost about .30 cents USD, while upscale bars with techno DJs from Europe had clientele (and prices) that could easily be found in Brooklyn, Berlin, or Guangzhou. From one extreme to the other and back again, and that’s part of the mad fun of India.
Manny dressed the part for the Holi celebration with her all-white, traditional Indian robe. Leaving the apartment about noon, slightly trepidatiously after hearing the screams and cheers of kids from outside our window, we bought supplies at a local shop across the alleyway: two water guns, colors, and a can of colored spray foam. My large gun worked terribly at the start and lasted all of three minutes when I charged at a group of about ten young kids and early teens who were throwing eggs. I fought valiantly (in my opinion) with the limited tools I had, but the young devils had other ideas – grabbing me, tossing me upside down, and dragging me through the street! Nearly all supplies lost, water gun broken, we ran away still being pelted with eggs, my blood-red (from the color – not real blood!), muddy back looking like I was mutilated and thrown in the gutter to die.
Other groups of kids treated us more gently (perhaps because I did not run in and charge at them?) and we snapped tons of selfies as we made our way to a Holi music festival. With four stages, food tents, and about 1/3 of the attendees being foreigners, the festival definitely didn’t feel like a traditional Holi experience, but we had a great time with some of the typical Indian confusion (The coupons sold in the festival were supposed to be for buying food and alcohol, but the food tents would not accept the coupons and the alcohol was given away for free!) and met some AMAZING people like Sharman (who designed the set for the fest), Jackson, and their crew of friends and family.
Joining Sharman, Jackson, and the crew after the festival ended, we loaded into two cars and sped to central Delhi and ended up at their aunt’s home with their entire family. More techno on the speakers, some of the BEST food we have eaten yet in India, homemade sweets – SO GOOD and SO MANY SELFIES. After, we zoom back south and find out Sharman’s artist studio/apartment is only a two minute walk from our AirBnB! What are the chances to start hanging out with a random dude miles from home in a metropolis of 25 million and he ends up living next door to you?
We have heard and seen some odds things here in India in our first weeks. Friends we met in Khajurho, the F-Couple (as I call Fernando/Francy from Honduras who now live in Philly), had an absolutely horrible experience arriving in Delhi at 2am and getting conned into 3 hour drive to neighboring Agra, and Indian friends of mine abroad have warning after warning about their country, but our first experiences with India in Delhi were GREAT. We ended up hanging out with Sharman and Jackson for the next three days until we had to leave. On our last night, Sharman brought us on a tour of central Delhi religious sites – the largest Christian Church, the largest Sikh temple, and then into a Muslim quarter to eat BEEF in the country that values cows over all other animals!
We expected to go vegetarian upon arriving in India, or at the very least abstaining from beef since northern India is vastly Hindu. Instead, we ended up eating meat every day, and the brief bit of bovine was one of Manny’s favorite meals in India so far.
After a week in Delhi, we hadn’t seen even a 1/3 of the places we had planned to visit. Delhi is just too big, and we sleep too much. Plan for next time? Get a room above ground with an actual window so we’ll be able to wake up.
Catch ya’ll later 🙂
D + M