This is one of my favorite shots from India, taken in the middle of the desert just outside Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. We reached this tiny village of mud and thatch huts by camel, and our tour guides bought local sweets from one of the families who live here.
I was thinking about adding a new segment to MissAdventure where I post a weekly photo. Then I logged on to find WordPress has brought back the Weekly Photo Challenge. This week happens to be the theme of ‘color,’ and I’ve just returned from one of the most colorful countries in the world: India.
Maybe it’s a sign? Probably not. But, it’s a good excuse anyway.
The challenge is fairly open to any kind of interpretation, and I chose to do a series dedicated to the color orange. Lots of things associate with this color, including monks in robes (or furry hats; see below) and summer days, so hopefully it will brighten yours.
Readers: Do you want more posts like this on MissAdventure? Do you have another idea? Let me know!
Perched high on top some of the highest peaks in the Himachal Pradesh region of the Himalayas, Shimla city sprawls over a 12-kilometer ridge. Home to 145,000 people residing in European-style homes – the affect of its past under British control – Shimla was once the premier hill station of India. Walking anywhere in town requires ever a steep uphill climb or downhill decent, and the place, dubbed little Switzerland by the locals, is swarming with Indian tourists on holiday.
Nittin, whom I stayed with in Delhi, brought me here to his childhood home, which sits quite literally on top of of the town, just below the monkey temple where an 108-foot statue of the Hindu monkey God, Hanuman, stands tall next to a modest, red-roofed temple swarming with macaque monkeys waiting to steal the offerings from pilgrims who come to pray.
His parents still live here, along with his younger sister, Swati. They are fortunate to have one of the best views in all the city, and it didn’t take me long to understand why our tour of Delhi was rushed, our journey to Shimla expedited.
There isn’t much in the way of sightseeing, other than the natural, 360-degree views of some of the most beautiful part of this country, but I stayed nearly a week because the Mahendru family treated me like one of their own. Each morning we woke, reluctantly peeled off the layers of thick, wool blankets and embraced the cold before huddling around a tiny electric heater in the living room/parent’s bedroom to sip hot chai. Indians spend most of their off-time in such a room, almost every house the same, eating, playing and sleeping in the large bed at its center, giving the term “family room” a literal meaning.
Around 11am, we ate allu parantha (potato-filled chapati) with butter and spicy olives for breakfast, then we would again commence in the main room for dinner around 9:00 at night. Getting used to such late meals was one of the hardest parts of my journey in India, and often times dinner wasn’t served until 11:00, just before it was time to retire for the night.
At bedtime, Swati and I would close ourselves in her room – where she gave me the bed and herself a floor mat, in true Indian hospitality fashion – and share whiskey with warm water to heat our bodies and help us sleep through the night.
“Shhh, I don’t like my father and brother to know I drink whiskey,” she said after we had swapped pictures and life stories. Swati is a good Hindu, a wonderful daughter and a faithful student of Buddhism. (“Hinduism is my faith, but I follow Buddhist principles,” she explained when I questioned her about her four years of Buddhist following.) God forbid what she does on her own time, with her own money, be something that shames her, and I wasn’t telling.
One night, Nittin and his father, Akhil, poured themselves, and me, glasses of warm whiskey. They drank and caught up on life, while Swati and I cooked egg curry and chapati (and she stole hidden drinks from my ever-full glass). As we ate, Akhil bragged, in his grandfatherly way, about his God-given right to be a good dancer, and how he taught his children his special moves. Of course, I made him prove it, and Gangnam Style commenced in the bedroom as my iPod blared through the speakers of Swati’s new laptop.
“Tonight we sleep like wow!” was one of Swati’s favorite sayings. And she was right. Curled up snug in her bed was the best week of sleep I had in India, and it was only the beginning. There would be several sleepless nights to come.
It’s possible I stayed so long just because I enjoyed Akhil’s conversation and hospitality, Swati’s fun-loving personality and fast friendship (as well as her bed!), and Nittin’s humor and charm, which makes this a prime example of how couch surfing can turn a trip from a nice, scenic stop into an amazing immersion with locals and family. If you’re not already a member of the popular site, I suggest you sign up (it’s free!) and try it next time you travel. Shimla is without a doubt a beautiful stop on any itinerary, but it’s the Mahendru family that made it unforgettable.
I mount my sitting camel like a horse, unsure of what to expect from the two-day ride through India’s largest desert. Once on, our guide pulls my camel’s rope – which is connected to his nose ring through both nostrils – and he stands, back feet first, causing my back to arch in a provocative way much like when a girl rides a mechanical bull at a bar: the operator puts it in slow motion so the crowd can watch her body move into an unavoidable sexy display of chest and torso. Then Mr. Lalu, my camel, lifts his front feet, now standing on all fours, and I’m higher than any horse I have ridden by at least two hands.Mr. Lalu begins chewing on something loud and crunchy, which I later learn is his own regurgitated breakfast, and soon we’re off, wandering down a sandy path between cacti larger than the houses I’ve slept in for the previous week. An hour or so passes (“We’re on desert time,” our guides say) before the tiny rope acting as reigns are freed from the camel before us and we’re in full control – rather the camels attempt to let us believe our tiny, helpless bodies, in comparison, are actually in charge.
We trot along, stopping only to tour a small village of clay houses and small begging children where we buy sweets for our after dinner treat and then ride again into the sandy abyss.
When our stomachs growl, we stop under a rare, large tree for lunch while the camels are released from their saddles and allowed to wander with their two front feet banded. They munch on trees while our guides effortlessly set up a two-burner stove made of rocks and twigs and begin cooking chai and veggie curry, along with fried batter and chapati.
“No hurry, no worry. No chicken, no curry,” they chant as they cook, just one of the many Indian sayings we come to know and love.
The afternoon proves too hot for both us and the camels, so we nap while the guides do dishes in the sand (no water or soap) as they probably have every day for who knows how long, despite the fact we’ve all eaten off the same plates as countless people before us.
“No hurry, no worry!”
In the afternoon we ride free for several desert hours until we reach the rolling dunes we’ve imagined and witness the sun droop over their horizon. It will be our resting place for the night. We go explore, then stumble back down to sit around the cooking fire and help make chapati, peel garlic and cut onion for the potato (allu) curry we will eat with rice for dinner.
We sit around a large campfire in the sand as we listen to each others’ stories and plans; movie and book recommendations; ways to travel and past experiences. Mr. Khan tells a story about a previous safari with one German girl who failed to tell him she had a history of sleepwalking.
He says he saw her get up and walk into the dessert around 11pm but thought she just wanted to go enjoy the moonlight or use the restroom, so he said nothing and went back to sleep. Several hours later he woke and she still hadn’t returned. He began to worry.
“She is only girl and I only camel man and I afraid she think I do something wrong if I follow her, like ‘What’s this camel man doing? He want something?’ Like this, maybe bad experience and she tell my boss and I lose my job. I no want this.” He called out for her several times. No answer.
“But it like 2 in the morning and she still in the desert so I light big torch and follow her tracks…way, way out. I see her laying in the sand and I ask what she is doing here and she say she is sleeping. She tell me to leave her alone. I say why not you go back to camp now? She say she sleeping. What I to do?”
We all shake our heads, listening intently.
“Finally I take her by the hand and bring her back to camp and say this your bed, you sleep here. She say no, I am sleeping. What I to do? I never see this thing… sleepwalking before.”
He takes a sip of his warm chai. It’s clear he’s told this story before, and he knows all the right places to pause for audience effect.
“What did you do?” Two of the group members ask, impatient.
“I get a rope and I tie one side to her foot. Then I tie the other side to the camel. She no go nowhere anymore.”
We all laugh at his ingenious idea and make sure none of us have a history of sleepwalking.
That night the guides make our beds of blankets around the camel saddles to block the wind. The fire crackles quietly as silence falls upon us and we are rocked by the gentle breeze into a blissful sleep under the stars, comforted by the simple fact we get to do it all over again tomorrow.
On Monday, the 55-day Maha Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India came to an end. It seems like ages ago already that I was there, camping on the sand inside a thatch hut owned by a famous, dread-locked sadhu, and photographing the ritual bathing on the most auspicious day of the entire event – February 10, 2013. That experience will live with me forever, I’m sure, but before I even knew what the Kumbh Mela was, I visited another one of the four cities where the world’s largest religious gathering is held: Haridwar, in the state of Uttarakhand.
Like Allahabad, Haridwar is located on the banks of the river Ganges and is considered one of the seven holiest cities in India. And, like the rest of India, even cows are considered gods. In a hierarchy of importance, cows come second only to the birth mother, for they provide milk when the mother dries up, as well as manure, which is used for cooking. It amazes me still, however, that these highly revered animals largely live on trash.
Nobody claims them. Nobody feeds them.
Then again, some people can barely afford to feed themselves. In the morning, I wandered aimlessly with my camera, as I often do on my first day in a new place, and found myself walking past the slums built along the railway tracks where children fly paper kites tied to a single white string…
…mothers nurse their babies amidst the dirt, trash and drying laundry…
…and both men and cows laze in the middle of the tracks with nothing better to do.
I walked through the housing community on the other side, snapping photos of eager children and lounging shopkeepers – those slightly better off than the folks they looked down at on the tracks below.
I strolled past ladies washing clothes and grandmothers relaxing.
I continued up the hill toward one of the city’s largest temples, fending off wild monkeys as I went.
At the top, I joined a massive crowd waiting to enter. We lined up between guardrails meant to guide people, and instantly those behind me were pushing and hollering, while those in front were also impatiently shoving their way through. I had no choice but to go with the flow. I felt more like a cow in the chute at branding time than the holy cows wandering freely down on main street would ever know.
Later I joined the nightly, sunset aarti, a religious ceremony along the banks of the river where locals gather to pray, bathe and set burning candles placed inside banana-tree leaves to float along the fast-moving water. As I stood amidst the crowd of almost-entirely Indian tourists, I felt less like a cow than I had before for I had nothing left to give and they, despite their malnourishment and mistreatment, continue to provide.
Since I got back together with my ex, Thailand, things have been going quite smoothly. We’re happy now. Well, I’m happy now. Mr. Land o’ Smiles is always happy. It’s like I could be anyone, and he wouldn’t even notice with all the bikini-clad tourists around here, but I guess I’ll just have to get used to that.
It wasn’t for lack of feeling, I tell him. I love you more, I say. But after a few months of flirting with China, only to have him throw up all over your face, anyone would fall madly in love with Hong Kong. And while Hong Kong will remain a very memorable one-night stand (uh hum, okay, we might have continued our affair for several nights, on more than one occasion…but who’s counting?), it was just a fling. Thailand and I go way back…to 2011. And our relationship was on an entirely different level.
Anyway, here’s my attempt to clear up any confusion about who holds my heart. Better late than never.
I wasn’t fair to you before. I admitted my love for you, yes, but I didn’t shout it from the top of Mt. Kangchenjunga in India like I should have. The reason is because you were my first love, and I wasn’t yet sure what lay beyond your borders. Did I love you for the amazing country you are, or just because I didn’t know any better? Would I love another country just the same?
Now I know. There is no other country like you, Thailand. I’ve not yet seen them all, but I’ve seen enough to know my love for you will probably never be topped. And it’s not just for your flawless good looks and your splendid personality. It’s not only for your karmic beliefs, your aversion to fighting and your ability to accept all people with open arms (except those bikini-clad girls, but I’ll let it slide). It’s not even just because you give a damn good massage and you’re smokin’ hot. In fact, sometimes you’re so hot I can’t stand it!
I love you because of how you make me feel. When I’m with you I’m relaxed, confident and in control, yet I’m motivated, carefree and, in reality, have no control at all. I never know when or if my bus will actually arrive, whether or not I’ll have a job or where I’ll live when I do get one. When I’m with you, I’m completely okay with knowing nothing except that everything always works out how it should.
I love you because when I arrived at your airport for the second time, I felt like I had come home. When I took a taxi, you told me (via the driver) you thought I was beautiful. You said it four times – three in Thai and once in English – just to make sure I understood, which was probably necessary after four months in China and six weeks in India where the only comments I got on my appearance were various renditions of, “What happened to your face?”
Trust me. I fell in love with you all over again in that moment, and I knew that following my heart back to you was the best decision I could have made. You kept a piece of my heart when I left you last time, Thailand, and I’m pretty sure it will be yours forever.
Agra is at once overwhelming. It was my first taste of the India I had heard about prior to my departure (because my Couchsurf host prevented me from having to encounter this scene in Delhi), which is to say my first brush with scam artists, irrepressible tuk tuk drivers and even more persistent rickshaw caddies.
Rickshaw drivers will follow you, sometimes for several kilometers in the case of two girls I witnessed from a safe pace behind. They need three, four, five no’s, forcing us to be rude, or sometimes downright mean, before they finally relent.
It’s not just the drivers though. On first arrival, it seems there is so much to see and so little time, thanks to a quickened schedule suggested by several other travelers who said one day in Agra is enough. But soon, when that day is finished, you realize everything worth seeing has been done, and anything else isn’t worth the hassle.
I arrived via an overnight bus from the religious center of Haridwar. The journey was a sleepless ten hours, despite my delight to see an actual bed instead of the chair I expected. But it was cold – large gaps between the seal and the window, which extended the length of my upper-berth bed, didn’t let me forget – and no blankets were provided. I was shivering under three scarves draped and tucked over my body and dreaming of even the dirtiest blanket to place on top. Not to mention, the roads are riddled with potholes larger than squat toilets, and frequent stops are made for food and chai.
Nevertheless, I arrived with just enough time to drop my bag at the Taj Guesthouse (I desperately needed my own space by this point) and catch the sunrise opening of what is said to be the most beautiful building in the world: the Taj Mahal. The lack of other early risers left the palace stunningly serene. I was afraid I would get there and be disappointed.
I certainly was not.
The Taj Mahal is the most visited site in all of India, attracting somewhere between two and four million people annually. This white marble masterpiece, encrusted with semi-precious stones, was built by the 5th Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, in memory of his third but most beloved wife, a Muslim Persian Princess who died after birthing their 13th child. It is now recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Eighth Wonders of the World.
The Taj sits on the bank of the River Yamuna, not far downstream from the famous Red Fort – the first base of the Mughal Empire. After visiting this and what is commonly known as the Baby Taj, the first structure in the area to be built entirely of white marble, I returned to see the big Taj at sunset.
Afterward, I bought a sterling silver ring inspired by the big Taj from one of those pushy (but polite) touts that drove me so crazy. It’s sides are cut into an intricate lace patter, imitating the many lattice windows, and it’s topped with a purple jewel like the ones that glimmer when the sun hits the beautiful marble building.
I guess it’s fair to say I desperately wanted to bring a piece of the Taj Mahal home with me.
Do you think it’s most beautiful building in the world? Can you top it?