Before I get too entrenched in Barcelona, I wanted to recap what we experienced and learned in India and Nepal. This was both a challenging and a rewarding trip and I have mixed feelings about our time there.
First of all India was not an easy country to embrace immediately and probably not a good choice for inexperienced travelers. I have been fortunate to have been traveling internationally for over 40 years, been on 6 of the 7 continents and lost count of the number of countries visited but probably in the neighborhood of 65 including several very poor 3rd world countries. And this was still an eye-opener for me.
There is sensory overload in all directions and I know I spent the first few days with my mouth open, jaw half way to the floor. Tim probably still has bruises on his arm from my grabbing him saying OMG did you see THAT???
First a little basic info about India
Located in South Asia, it is considered a sub-continent. Bordered by water on three sides – the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Neighboring countries include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, China, Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma).
It is the seventh largest country in the world by land mass, but the second largest by population of somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.2 billion people.
Four religions originated in India; Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. 80% of India is Hindu.
Recent history includes being governed by the East India Company, the UK and then gaining their independence in 1947, largely by the efforts of the non-violence advocate Mahatma Gandhi.
There is still a caste system in place that places the hierarchy in order on “priests, warriors, and free peasants” but excludes indigenous people by labeling them as impure or untouchables.
In no particular order, I will recap some of the things that surprised, amazed or awed me. I’ll also intersperse some of my favorite pictures. I don’t want to leave the impression that India is not a wonderful place to travel to. It is eye-opening and one can not help but go away feeling some measure of gratitude. I also hope that some preparation, warnings and advance knowledge can help others enjoy their trip more fully.
We saw some of the most amazing architectural triumphs ever constructed, but of course the jewel in the crown and the one I was most excited to see was the Taj Mahal. It was all I had hoped it would be and am thankful to have added that to my treasured memories.
The extremes bothered me though. Wealth beyond measure was consumed to create these masterpieces and then they were encircled by massive walls. Right outside the gates one saw the opposite extremes, beggars, abject poverty, hungry children, many deformities, illness and desperation. My heart was twisted, broken and at times I had to become numb to all we were seeing or else risk depression with the realization I could not change their situation.
Doing nothing went against my nature and I had an internal battle brewing most days.
Hungry faces still haunt me…
Of course I knew about the sacred cows in India, however it was still a surprise to see them so casually walking throughout the streets, in town, everywhere undisturbed and ignored by everyone else. There is an obvious comfort of sharing space. Other than watching where one steps to avoid an unpleasant squish, they seem to be otherwise ignored.
But cows and water buffalo are not the only animals roaming around. The streets are filled with dogs, and depending upon where we went we also witnessed pigs, goats, camels, monkeys, elephants, and donkeys. Some animals were used for work or to pull carts. Others simply roamed and scavenged for food.
Driving and riding
From the moment we arrived we realized that either of us driving here was NEVER going to happen. The cars have the steering wheels on the right side and they drive on the left as is common in other former UK countries. I’m (kind of) sure that there must be some acknowledged rules of the road but I am at a loss of what they could possibly be.
Horns are blasted constantly. I believe that it signals something, but not sure if it is an indication that they wish to get past, to let someone know they are there, to say hello, just because they like the noise or a combination of all of the above.
There were signs along the road that stated “At night use your dipper”. I later found out that meant to use your headlight dimmer. So driving after dark became a constant flashing light show but with many fewer horns.
Pedestrians, a variety of vehicles, cars, buses, carts pulled by any number of different animals, tuk tuks, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles, and bicycles all compete for the same few inches of space.
Other safety nightmares included no use of helmets on motorcycles, although in Nepal they are required for the driver. It was common to see three or four on a motorcycle, with the women sitting side-saddle on the back with their beautiful saree and matching scarf flapping in the wind. Often one or more small baby or child was wedged between mom and dad as they flew down the highway.
Few of the vehicles we rode in had functioning seat belts in the rear.
What absolutely shocks me is that in the two weeks we were there I never saw a single accident. I’m truly grateful for that!
Mobile Phone and Internet service
It was not easy to get set up, but once Tim mastered the IT challenges, purchased a local SIM card, got the plan in place and approved it worked like a charm. And the cost was quite reasonable.
Hawkers and other sellers
What became immediately clear is that if you engage in ANY conversation with a vender (hawker) whether walking down the street or passing by a shop, you will be hard pressed to escape without making a purchase, or having to repeat no, no thank you, not interested, I don’t want one, I already have one (or several in the case of scarves), I don’t have any money, not now, or any numerous combination of NO. The only thing I found that usually worked was: MAKE NO EYE CONTACT AND IGNORE
Again that was so outside of my comfort level. I had come here to see India, meet the people, interact, learn, share and experience. I did have several wonderful exchanges with vendors on our walks. I don’t want to leave the impression that it was not possible. It was and I especially enjoyed when true sharing took place.
Women, colorful sarees, hardworking and beautiful smiles
The women stole the show when it came to being colorful. They were also the ones that seemed to be doing much of the manual labor in the fields, while the men ran the small shops. Both men and women sold items on the street.
How beautiful the women were in their flowing sarees. They seemed to have a social interaction separate from the men as we often found them gathered together in groups.
Thanks to Mama Khan, a sweet lady from Bangladesh that was in our tour group I got to wear a saree one evening to our farewell dinner. It is a simple long single piece of cloth that is wrapped around your middle to form a skirt, tucked into a waist band and then artfully pleated and draped under an arm, across the back and over the shoulder. I have yet to attempt putting one on by myself, but by following a youtube how-to video and using a few well placed safety pins I thing I might be able to.
Anytime you travel any distance, adjusting to a new time zone can be a challenge. The further you go, the more your body is off kilter and needs to find its way to a new norm. India is quite literally 1/2 way around the world from our home in California so even more of a shock to the system than “normal”. Being twelve hours “upside down” is a big difference and wanting time to adjust was part of the reason we arrived in India several days ahead of our tour group.
One small piece of trivia that tickled me is that India time adjusted by 1/2 hour increments instead of full hours I was used to, so we set our clocks 12.5 hours forward upon arrival. And then Nepal further surprised me by using 15 minute increments so when we flew from Varanasi, India to Kathmandu, Nepal we set our watches forward an additional 15 minutes. Another first for me.
With trash thrown everywhere, piled on the streets, pollution, overuse of chemicals, 1.2 billion people, crowded living conditions, animals allowed to roam freely, and little if any regulations, India is a cesspool.
Men urinate openly on the streets in full view of anyone passing by. Though more commonly with their back to the road, they water down the closest wall. I counted one day for fun and saw over 30 in just a few hours. This was not a random event!
One has to be very mindful when walking as cow or water buffalo dung is everywhere mixed in with dog and/or human poop, uneven walkways, broken concrete, potholes, or other obstacles and you feel like you are walking a mine field.
Even taking normal 3rd world precautions such as drink only bottled water, don’t use tap water for brushing teeth, use caution in shower to not get water in your eyes or mouth, no ice in drinks, eat only cooked foods or fruit that is peeled, etc. many in our group experienced Delhi Belly. That equated to severe diarrhea and stomach cramps.
No one likes to get sick. It is even more unpleasant when on the road, getting in and out of busses, and trying to keep a schedule with limited bathroom stops. Enough said on that topic.
It became evident early on that some of the people of India were as curious about me as I was about them. With my fair skin and blonde (alright, bottle blonde) hair, I stood out from their darker complexion and jet black hair. We received stares from the children, and many requests to take our picture, most often they wanted to have their pictures taken with me. I found it flattering, sweet and amusing to be on the other side of a camera lens for a change.
India vs Nepal
Again this is just my personal observation and others may or may not agree with me, but after experiencing India, I found Nepal more laid back, cleaner and easier to navigate. I was sorry to not be feeling well the first couple of days there so I did not get out and explore as much as I might otherwise have done.
The architecture in Nepal had its own unique flair and for such a small country there are an extraordinary number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Also being the gateway to trekking the Himalayas or taking the ultimate challenge of climbing Mt. Everest, Katmandu brought travelers from around the world.
I have not done justice to recounting all we saw in Nepal and will either write more later or (even better) return some day to spend more time.
I also found that the venders were a little less desperate and were more willing to simply talk. Mostof the women had beautiful strong white teeth and beautiful smiles.
Nepal was also cleaner. In India it was common for everyone to throw their trash on the ground. I had a hard time with that aspect of life there.
Tim and I have been huge fans of Indian cuisine for a long time. It was not unusual for us to eat at one of our favorite Indian restaurants once a week for several years. Although we can not handle “hot hot” food, we normally do fine with “spicy”.
We were surprised that many of the special meals as well as the hotel buffets offered so little variety. It was the same few dishes over and over, especially similar vegetable and chicken curries, and a lentil dish. Perhaps (probably) they are catering more to the average Western and European tourist pallet, but I was disappointed in the lack of diversity.
I did really love the mango though, including fresh mango, mango ice cream, and the mango lassi which is a yoghurt based smoothy style drink. Fresh papaya was another favorite.
Did I fall in love with India? No, that would be too strong. But what I did love was the cultural experience, having my mind and heart opened up to a world so different from my own reality.
I experienced and saw examples of extreme poverty. Witnessing people struggle to survive, living in filth and squaller, yet managing to look beautiful in their colorful saree, hold their babies tight, smile and carry on.
I squeezed through crowded streets on foot and held my breath as our variety of vehicles wove through one traffic jam after another, yet I never witnessed an accident or saw anyone get injured.
Getting our India Visa took a lot of work and I was so pleased to read recently that there are plans to streamline the process and make it much easier for future travelers.
What I want to take away is the good memories. On more than one occasion I mentioned to Tim that I feel so ALIVE as we witnessed first hand a way of life so foreign to our own.
As a lover of photography, I was in heaven. I think I could have walked in any direction and filled up my 32G memory card in a matter of a couple of hours if given the chance. Every where I looked was another mind-blowing sight, colorful attire, unbelievable situation, historical monument, funny or different occurrence, friendly smile, or one more thing to say OMG over.
I’m glad we took an organized tour for our first time in India and I believe that Gate 1 Travel gives good value for the money. I hope in the future they will add the “whisper” headphone technology to their India trips which makes hearing your guide so much easier. They provided us headsets on our previous trips with them to Thailand and Turkey and it made a significant difference in our understanding and enjoyment.
GRATITUDE MOMENT: Today I am grateful for being able to see the world with all of it’s failures and triumphs at the same time, and take away special memories. I like living life through rose colored glasses.