Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Dear Blog,

Oh how I have neglected thee. How many moons has it been since I made a report? Five? Six? Far too many. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to write anything. Part of it was that I became engrossed in the book Three Cups of Tea, but I also think I just needed a break from writing. I realized that I haven't been writing very much about the geography of my travels, and that all these different names of cities may be a bit confusing. Here is a map of where we've been since we came back into India from Nepal:


I'm currently in Agra, which is about three hours south of the capital city of Delhi and is also home to the Taj Mahal. Less than an hour ago we were having lunch atop a modest roof top restaurant just south of the Taj, one of many such restaurants in the unexpectedly run-down backpacker enclave known as Taj Gang. We had just finished our thalis when Mimi let out an urgent gasp, followed by an onslaught of pained, blood-curdling barks from a lone stray dog. I turned my head away from the Taj Mahal and down to the busy street below, where a small pooch lay spasming and screaming on the ground, his leg clearly broken. Several other strays gathered around him caringly, but they were hopeless to help him. Apparently, Mimi witnessed an auto rickshaw drive over the small dog, rendering it crippled for life. A small group of people gathered around the writhing dog in a sympathetic manner, but eventually lost interest and moved on. We watched as the dog limped around in circles and finally made its way under a parked truck, where it tended its wound in solitude.

I'm not really sure why I just related this story. There are countless stray dogs all over India, and now that I think about it, all over Asia as well. Like so many things here, they are initially intriguing but gradually melt into the background. Nowadays, I hardly even notice the strays as they wander aimlessly through the streets. But seeing this crippled dog totally helpless on the street served as a quick reminder of their sad existence. Stray dogs in the United States are quite rare, but in Asia they are as common as the heaps of garbage that provide their sustenance. I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this, but boy did we feel bad for that pooch.

Leaving this sad tale behind, let me bring us up to speed. When I last wrote, we were en route from Amritsar to Rishikesh, a sure destination on any backpacker's list of places to visit in India. Ahhh Rishikesh. It's the city you love to hate and the city you hate to love. It's the self proclaimed yoga capital of the world and is accordingly overrun by hippies and new agers from all around the globe. The lower half of the city is a grimy, impoverished city virtually indistinguishable from any of the other cities we rumbled through on the train ride from Punjab. The only reason a foreigner might go to this lower part of town is to catch a bus. "Upper Rishikesh," however, is considerably cleaner and better maintained and was composed nearly entirely of yoga ashrams, traveler's cafes, new age bookstores and hippie-oriented clothing and craft stores.

This area spread out along both sides of the Ganges river, which cuts through the city and winds down to the holy city of Haridwar and eventually down on to Varanasi, where we had been just a week before. Unlike Haridwar and Varanasi, Rishikesh is not an especially holy or historically relevant place for Hindus. It has, however, been home to a scattering of ashrams (yoga and meditation oriented spiritual retreats), one of which was run by a man named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. When a band called the Beatles stayed at this ashram in the winter and spring of 1968, it put Rishikesh on the map for Westerners, and I don't think things have been the same here since.

Now, Rishikesh, is the place to come in India for spiritual seekers, yoga enthusiasts, and let us be honest, pot smoking hippies. If you want to surround yourself with like minded individuals and escape a lot of the filth and hassle that plagues travel in India, Rishikesh is the place for you. People come here and seemingly never leave. As a result, there is quite a wacky cast of characters floating around Rishikesh, which has more Westerners than any place we've been to in India. The "peace and love" contingent here makes itself quite present, with their dreadlocks, poofy colorful pants, and rainbow headbands. But among these silly looking people are many hard working yoga students who have come here not for the late night conversations in traveler's cafes, but for the very serious yoga courses at the ashrams.

Part of me wanted to write Rishikesh off as a ridiculous enclave of New Age bullshit separated from the "real India." How can we sit around talking about peace and love over our ayurvedic teas when people are living in shantytowns made out of tin less than two miles from here? But nothing is ever that simple, and after a few days here I concluded that the place had merit. People were dedicated here and very serious about their spiritual development, and it was a place to truly interact with and learn something from Indians. The sadhus here, of which there were many, were not stalking tourists looking for a handout. They were here for spiritual reasons only, and I saw more Westerner/Indian interactions in Rishikesh than anywhere else we have been.

So where did Mimi and I fit into all of this? For our part, we took a few yoga lessons and did what we do best, which is to walk around and soak up the vibe. We were lucky enough to be in Rishikesh right at the tail end of a two-week long free yoga and music festival. First, this enabled us to see two concerts, one featuring the sitar and one featuring the tabla. Despite some frustrating sound system issues, both concerts were quite excellent. The sitar player was a bit flashy for our taste, but the tabla player was fantastic. Still, Mimi and I agreed that nothing would compare to that first tabla concert we attended in Kolkata.

One hilarious highlight of the sitar concert involved an aging hippie from the Czech Republic who, armed with an acoustic guitar, somehow managed to hijack the stage just before the concert started so that he could play us his "Mantra for Peace," a corny sing-along whose sole lyrics were the (heavily accented) phrase, "World peace starts with peace inside." While this statement may have some truth, I struggled to keep the laughter inside as the audience reluctantly sang along. It was moments like this where the "anti-hippie" found in all of us came bubbling up to the surface. I'm for world peace just as much as the next guy, but singing about it? It's just not my cup of tea.

The potentially vomit-inducing spiritual new age vibe continued during the yoga session that we attended through the festival. The lesson was led by a white woman from LA who had adopted an Indian name and dedicated herself to teaching an obscure sect of yoga that, as we learned, involves "poses" as varied as aggressively marching in place, hugging as many random people as you can, doing leg squats for ten straight minutes while smiling, and linking arms and singing about peace and love. This style of yoga had an Indian name, but it might as well have been called "Calisthenics for Hippies."

For the most part, we took our three and a half days in Rishikesh quite easy. We had been running around and doing quite a lot in Varanasi in Amritsar, and it was great to use these days to recharge our batteries and take it easy. On one of the days, we took a walk down to see the "Beatles Ashram," which has been closed for many years and is now part of a national forest. After a bit of searching, we finally found the entrance. I was disappointed to find that the gate was protected by a lone guard wearing military fatigues. I asked him if we could go inside to look around, to which he responded that we could, as long as we gave him an unofficial "donation" of 50 rupees each. The park surely should have been freely open to public, so out of principle, we decided to forgo the extended tour. We took a picture from the outside, waved goodbye, and walked back towards town.

As we walked back, we wandered off the path down towards the river, where we saw some of the buildings of the ashram. As you all probably know, I went through an intense Beatles phase just before I left America. A good chunk of the White Album was written while the Beatles were here in Rishikesh and it was a bizarre feeling to be there in the flesh. Looking at the buildings where John Lennon wrote songs like Dear Prudence, Julia and Happiness is a Warm Gun, it felt nearly surreal. I thought about the Strawberry Fields monument in Central Park, where Beatles fans congregate and sing their favorite songs. Then I looked around at where some of those same songs had been written. I saw some abandoned buildings beyond a fence and a lone sadhu walking away from a ramshackle tent, perhaps where he lived. Monkeys and cows wandered aimlessly around us. There's India, and then there is India.

On our third day, we did something quite random and signed up for a half-day white water rafting trip down the Ganges river. Despite its holiness, the local authorities have begun allowing people to raft down the river, which has some surprisingly turbulent and exhilarating rapids. I hadn't gone rafting since I was a little kid, so I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I can assure you, rafting is incredibly fun. We had a really cool guide and shared our raft with some friendly people from Wales and Canada. We went far enough upstream that the water is clean enough to swim in, and at one point we hopped out and swam around through the rapids. To my protective parents, if you are reading this, fear not, for we were wearing protective helmets and life vests.

And that was Rishikesh. Our next destination was Delhi, the capital of India. But we first spent one day in transit in Hardiwar, a very interesting city about an hour south of Rishikesh. We had a bunch of time to kill before our overnight train left, so we watched Hardiwar's Ganga Arti, which is sort of a river worship ceremony similar to the one we had seen in Varanasi. Unlike in Varanasi, however, we were the only Westerners among perhaps a thousand devout Hindus, many of which seemed to have come to Haridwar as pilgrims. The ceremony was simpler and shorter and didn't feel like a performance as the one in Varanasi had. Everyone sat along the river ghat. To protect us from the grime, local boys sold us uncut bulk sheets of candy wrappers as makeshift blankets to sit on. And, as always, there were some monkeys, who I can assure you, were up to no good.

photo by Mimi

We arrived in Delhi early the next morning after a smooth overnight train voyage. We had heard from numerous other travelers that Delhi was an overcrowded city full of hassle but no worthwhile sights. "You'll want to leave as soon as you get there" was the general consensus. Our guidebook warned of devious train station touts and untrustworthy auto rickshaw drivers who whisk you away to their brother's silk shop instead of your destination. I personally had spent a decent amount of time mentally preparing myself, and the preparation paid off. Yes, Delhi was chaotic and if you gave me a dollar for every time a rickshaw driver asked me "Hey where you going my friend?" then I would be a very rich man. But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't any more chaotic or pushy than any other city we'd been to. I am fully convinced that by popping my "India Cherry" with Kolkata that everything else just pales in comparison. Delhi wore me down a bit and made me just a bit homesick, but it was nothing that we couldn't handle. And on the plus side, there were a few real gems.

We had also read that the budget accommodations in Delhi were pretty grim, so we "splurged" and upgraded to an AC room at the Ajay Guest House. This cost us about $7 per person, compared to the $4 a night that we've been averaging here in India. The extra money was well worth it, as we had clean sheets and bathroom and even a flat screen TV with over a hundred channels of hilariously incomprehensible Indian programming.

(By the way, I am no longer in Agra but am now in the wonderful small town of Bundi, which is in Rajasthan.)

We had gotten a pretty decent night of sleep on the train, so after a quick breakfast at our hotel, we headed out into Delhi to look around. We decided to spend the first day exploring "Old Delhi," which is where many of the ancient bazaars are, tucked in and around a wide array of complex alleyways.

I don't have anything particularly exciting to report about in regards to our wandering around this day. The bazaars were predictably discordant and numbing to the senses. The bicycle rickshaw drivers were on point as ever, flawlessly weaving through the pedestrian traffic before being pushed aside and overtaken by the auto-rickshaws that honked there way through the dense, slow moving chaos. We also had some delicious jalebi from an apparently very reputable sweet shop.

Jalebi is an absurdly sugary sweet (as desserts are called here) made by dropping fresh dough into scalding hot oil so that it forms pretzel-esque squiggles. The hardened dough is then transferred into a giant vat of hot liquid sugar, which soaks into and saturates the dough. Think of funnel cake, but a thousand times more decadent. Here are a few pictures from Old Delhi. Note the mystery man who sneaked into the third photo down.

photo by mimi.

The next day we decided to take Delhi's brand new metro system out to the outskirts of Delhi to visit a reportedly magnificent modern Hindu temple that had been highly recommended to us. The metro ride out went quite smoothly and by late morning we had reached the entrance way to the massive complex of Akshardam Temple. At this point, we were subjected to one of the most thorough security checks I've experienced outside of Ben Gurion International Airport. We had to leave our cameras, cell phone, digital clock, and just about everything else at the cloak check.

After clearing security, we entered the temple grounds. Sadly, I have no photographs to show, but I can assure you the temple was magnificently decadent. Boasting over 20,000 individual stone carvings, including something like 120 elephants which lined the main temple's perimeter, the temple was stunning. The place was relatively uncrowded as well, with only a few other foreign tourists. Mostly there were just massive school groups out for a field trip.

At one point, while Mimi and I were sitting on a bench, a school group of adorable young boys walked passed us. As they walked, each boy would timidly peer over at us in curiosity. Finally, one brave soul walked up to me, stuck out his hand for a shake, and proclaimed, "Hello!" I shook his hand and returned his greeting with equal enthusiasm. The ice was broken. Before we knew it, dozens of excited boys were swarming around us, waiting for a turn to shake our hand and say hello. They had formed a firm semi-circle around us and it quickly became clear there was no escape. The hellos went on for a solid five minutes, before their teacher came over and saved us. "Hello!"

The temple was architecturally impressive, but having been completed in 2005, it lacked the ancient charm and historical mystique of some of the other places we have visited on this trip. To make up for this, the temple offered a hall of animatronics explaining the history of Hinduism, as well as a Disneyland style boat ride through the life of the temple's saint. Unfortunately, these rides had steep admission prices, so we bade farewell to the temple and headed back to Delhi.

Our next destination was the completely underrated Humayun's Tomb. Humayun was an important Mughal emperor and his tomb was accordingly impressive. Lucky for us, the admission fee was waived that day, so we got in for free. Inexplicably, the grounds of the tomb were nearly deserted, despite the free admission. In fact, we practically had the entire place to ourselves. We found the place quite serene, and Mimi particularly enjoyed it. It boggled our minds that Humayun's Tomb wasn't a more popular destination for tourists. Here are a few pictures:


After an incredibly delicious lunch of South Indian food at a local canteen recommended by our guide book, we walked over to Delhi's most important Sikh shrine, the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. Ever since my visit to the Golden Temple, I've been fascinated by Sikhs and have been reading up on their history. Guru Gobind Singh anyone? The day before, we had stumbled upon another Sikh temple in Old Delhi and went inside to check it out for a moment. The inside of the temple was modest and not particularly nice, but for reasons beyond my comprehension, the rituals of entering -- removing the shoes, washing my hands and feet, covering my head -- excited me. Why do I enjoy this? I am not religious!

I had the same sensation the following day. As we entered the Bangla Sahib, shivers went down my spine. Inside, three men sat cross-legged and sang the holy hymns. We sat down and listened for a little bit, but somehow, it just wasn't as magical as the Golden Temple. I guess they only let the really good guys play at the Golden Temple. There was a nice amrit (holy pool) outside of the temple and we did a quick lap around. The courtyard had some beautiful marble insets, but in the grand scheme of things, this temple paled in comparison to the eloquent beauty and mesmerizing devotion found at the Golden Temple. Here are some pics:

The next morning, we took at 7am train from Delhi to Agra, which took just over three hours. Since it was a short journey, we had booked our tickets for the second class compartment, which is the cheapest ticket you can buy. I was a little bit nervous about this, but it turned out fine in the end. However, when we arrived at our seats, a family of five were already sitting there. We asked them if we could have our seats, but they acted as if this was a strange request. We made a compromise and all squeezed in. This confirmed our assumptions that it is much more a free for all when riding lower class trains in India. A conductor never even came and checked our ticket.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, we stayed at a nice budget place just south of the Taj Mahal, and someone from the hotel even came and picked us up at the train station for free even though we were only staying for one night. It even had a few of the Taj from its roof!

To our dismay, the Taj Mahal was actually closed on Friday, so instead we walked over to the Agra Fort. The walk took us along the dismal Yamuna river through an area that, judging by the constant stares, doesn't see many foreigners despite its proximity to the Taj.

Agra Fort has undergone quite a bit of restoration over the years. Although it had some very cool buildings, compared to the amazing fort we visited today in Bundi, the Agra Fort felt a bit sterile. It felt less like a historical site and more like a museum. I don't know that much about the issue of restoration, but I couldn't help but feel like Agra Fort had been unnecessarily refurbished. Here are a few pictures:


After checking out the fort, we walked around Agra's main bazaar, which actually may take the cake for the most oppressively busy place we've been to in India. A still, silent picture doesn't really do the place justice, but here is one shot anyways. The big building in the distance is one of Agra's larger mosques. I took some cool videos as well, and hopefully I can get those uploaded as soon as I get a solid connection and a few hours to spare (and some patience).

One interesting thing about Agra was the high number of Muslims. There were many mosques (called masjids in India) throughout Agra and hearing the calls to prayer throughout the day reminded me of my trip to Egypt last year. One mosque's loudspeakers sounded as if they were positioned directly at our window and I was not particularly happy when the 5am call to prayer woke me up.

Agra was also interesting for the same reason that so much of India is interesting. Amidst the tourist destinations and ancient sites, life in India simply goes on. Walk just a few steps away from the Taj Mahal and you won't find any other white people with cameras. Instead, you will find Indian people living their lives. You will find motorbikes, wild dogs, burning garbage, men selling bananas, rickshaws, chai stands, an occasional woman in a bright colored sari, cows, men holding hands, sadhus, fabric shops, but more than anything, you will find a hell of a lot of Indian people. For us in the west, Agra is synonymous with the Taj Mahal. But in reality, beyond the Taj Mahal, it's just another crazy Indian city, albeit one with substantially more charm than Delhi or Kolkata. And yet, the following picture serves as a decent summary of Agra beyond the walls of the Taj.

The next day, we got up early in a failed attempt to beat the crowds and walked over to the Taj Mahal. I had purposely kept very low expectations for this visit, because I didn't want to be disappointed. We were already a bit miffed at the comparatively expensive admission fee of 750 rupees (about $15). And I have to be honest, the Taj simply did not blow me away. It wasn't that I was disappointed, it just didn't blow me away. We've all seen pictures of the Taj Mahal, and in the flesh it pretty much looked just like the pictures, only in real life you don't have the Taj to yourself. Instead, you share it with thousands of other tourists. These are the tour group tourists that we rarely run into unless at a popular site like this. And while I understand the benefits of traveling with a tour group, it still doesn't change the fact that they make visiting these popular sites less enjoyable for everyone who isn't in a group.

Still, the Taj Mahal is an undeniably beautiful monument. I'm no architecture expert, but I am a big fan of symmetry, and in this regard the Taj does not disappoint. But in terms of its magnificence, I didn't understand why the Taj Mahal is so famous and other places in India are not. People say a picture is one thing, but to see it in the flesh is something totally different. When it comes to the mountains of the Himalayas, I couldn't agree more. Pictures simply don't translate. But in regard to the Taj Mahal, I think you can basically get the idea just from a picture. So without further ado, here are a couple of classic Taj Mahal shots, taken by yours truly. I threw one in of some Indian tourists just for the hell of it.

After about two hours of walking around and taking photos, we had had our fill. There wasn't anything else to do! So at around 10am, we said goodbye to the Taj Mahal and walked back to our hotel. We took it quite easy for the rest of the day, and took a train that night from Agra to Bundi, where I am now.

Bundi has been amazing (way more fun than either Delhi or Agra) and I can't wait to write about it. More soon!

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