When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are. – Sandra Cisneros
I sat cupped in the lotus temple in Delhi and sank into India. I could have sat there for days, listening to the silence, respecting the peace that it held, and feeling the people around me do the same. It was the first time a flower held me and I did not want it to let me go. As with so many things in my life, I could not get enough of it, I wanted it to saturate me, but there was not enough time to let it.
People on the side of the road.
The way that people get around in India is creative. The men sit astride their motorbikes and the women in their saris sit side-saddle. Sometimes they squish a few children between them, or a bundle of food. Workers carry jugs of milk, stacks of wood, boxes, container behind them, which teeter precariously behind them. Then there are the donkey or horse-drawn wagons full of hay and families of ten to twelve.
On our way to Nianital, we got to see the Ganges. It was a holiday specifically for worshipping. This meant that everyone was headed to cleanse in the river. I felt honored to be caught up in the excitement of this celebration. I never imagined that I would visit India. In fifth grade, I never thought that the stories I read in the little brown text book would materialize in front of my eyes. The people we saw on our way to the Ganges were mesmerizing. Everyone seemed to have a special way of peering at us through the windows of our taxi with curiosity, eyes sparkling and gleaming smiles. We passed a wagon-load of an extended family, we passed fathers lifting their little boys off of trucks full of people to pee in a giant arch across the road before catching up to the truck in the slow moving traffic. Water buffalo wove their way aimlessly through the maze of cars, trucks, taxis, carts and bicycles. Imagine a super highway full of people sitting open to the world, to each other, to nature and the animals. Occasionally, a monkey would poke its head out of a tree. When we met the Ganges, it was everything that I wanted it to be. People bathing, slipping, sliding on its murky banks. And it was vast, and calm, as it carried its significance and grace through India.
We started our ascent into the hill town of Nianital just as the sun started to set. The mountains grew as we ascended into the red clouds. Nianital is a resort town, about 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) high. Our driver dropped us off in the parking lot while Nitin and Bonzai settled things with the hotel. Starving Dolores and I gobbled god-candy before entering the Sikh temple tucked in at the end of the lake. We retired in our hotel after Nitin treated us to a few games of Snakes and Ladders.
I am a coffee drinker and India doesn’t do coffee, unless you are like Dolores and you like more milk than coffee. So I discovered masala tea. Masala tastes like India – black tea with ginger and milk, no sugar.
Double-dipping the Himalayas.
Like the Ganges, I never expected to see the Himalayas, so when I did, I practically fell prostrate. The Himalayas had always seemed too magnificent to be real, and they were. I got to see them again on our horseback ride later that day.
The main reason I went to India was the wedding as if I need an excuse to go there. Hopefully, without stirring up any disrespect, I can broach the concept of arranged marriages in India from my rather warped western perspective. It is not that it bothers me that parents match their sons or daughters, or that they may go on a dating site to do so. It is the desperation that seems to go with the importance of being married. As a non-believer in marriage, it is hard for me to wrap my head around this in any culture including my own. People in their twenties and thirties are still marrying in India by arrangement. When we asked them why, it was mostly because the parents wanted it that way. Parents are highly revered there from what I can see. Also, if you are an elder in your family and you do not marry, then you hold up the line for the younger siblings. This is by no means a put down; it is simply me trying to understand why people in the 21st century still follow this tradition.
I wonder if India grew up so fast that its history could not keep up with it.
We arrived at the wedding late due to traffic and getting lost. We checked in with the bride who was so stunning that she could not move. She wore red and glistened with gold, sequins, and joy. We left her standing in a small room downstairs, and drifted upstairs to an open-roofed room. We were greeted with milkshakes (now that is my kind of party). Then we ate hors d’oeuvres while trying to save room for the banquet waiting for us in the next room. We feasted on luscious food. Four hours later, the groom appeared with all of his male friends. The ceremony was frolicsome, traditional and sacred. The ceremonial part was left to the groom and his compadres. The eldest brother stuck to the groom as it was his role to give away his sister and entrust her to the groom. Once the groom finished his antics and ceremony, the bride and her women came in delicately, and the traditional teasing and ceremony continued. The rest of the wedding was a photo shoot, so we left.
India takes a long time to absorb. What did I take from it? Beauty and peace and magnificence. Magnificence because that word evokes power and magnitude. Indians wear their culture; they share it with those who are fortunate enough to visit. India is the lotus that held me in its palm.
The monsoon rains thrum on the street, and Christmas carol medleys thrum in the background, as I sit in my favorite café to write this. One week has passed since I returned from India, my stomach has almost recovered, and I feel different. I waited a week to write thinking that words would come, but I am not so sure they will because I cannot find the words to express an experience that was taste, smell, touch, sound, and sight. India is as rich as its food, which is beyond description. I am not sure that the candy we gobbled before we went into the Buddhist temple counts. It only dawned us after the Sikhs told us not to take pictures there that we had gobbled up food meant for the gods. But I am way ahead of myself.
I left my travel plans in Dolores’ hands. She left it in her roommate Ranjana’s hands because Ranjana is from India. Lesson one: never let someone else plan your trip. Although we were grateful when we landed in Delhi that there was a driver in a clean van waiting for us, about a mile into the maze of Delhi traffic, we realized that he only knew five words of English: “no problem and in a minute.” In a minute, I had seen just about all of India that I wanted to. I was glad that I had booked a flight for Tuesday — only six days to go.
One billion people live in India, and I could tell. I have never seen such a large concentration of people, and they were never-ending. There was no place that was not crowded. For those of you who have read my blog http://tampicoandlisa.travellerspoint.com/ ), driving in Mexico is tame compared to India. The roads in the cities are better maintained, perhaps because the potholes are filled with trash, but the traffic rules are governed by the horn. (Picture of blow the horn truck). Pedestrians do not have the right of way (I have yet to see this rule observed in my walkabout so far.), but water buffalos, cows, dogs, monkeys, camels and elephants do.
I had no idea where we were headed until Dolores informed me that we would be in the car for 200 kilometers (124 miles). In India, that is about a six-hour drive. We were on our way to Jaipur. This trip involved a lot of driving, so I kicked back and watched the movie of India pass us by. The colors, the pollution, the trash, the animals, plodded by us and dodged in front of us as we blasted and wove among trucks, carts, bicycles, motorbikes stacked with entire extended families, rickshaws, tuk-tuks and pedestrian traffic.
We made it in one piece to Jaipur, but our arrival in Jaipur was not so smooth. We had no idea where the hotel was. The sim card on our phone did not work, and it was “no problem” for our driver, as we would get there “in a minute.” At one point, Dolores saw the hotel, but Mr. No Problem did not stop. Dolores was pissed. I was perfectly content to drive around in circles. Finally, we landed in a little hotel called The Mansions, chatted with the concierge, who now writes to us converse in English, and crashed in our tiny room.
The next morning we were up early to see forts, palaces, and mosques. Sometimes I found myself more fascinated by the people around me than the sights I was seeing. In one fortress, I found an exhibit on clothing. It was dark, and I was swept up in a school group, so I had to ground myself in order to stop and appreciate the exhibit. As I started to feel enveloped in India’s history and its present, I felt soft fingertips and palms brush along my arms as a flurry of women and girls streamed past me. It felt like a silk massage, and before I knew it they were gone as if nothing had ever happened. All that was left were their dark brown eyes, thick braided hair, and maroon uniforms. Breathless, I breathed in India.
That day in Jaipur, after my brush-by experience, I was laughed at by school children, scorned at by crinkled old women in saris and chased by young men with cameras. Muslims do not like flesh, but in KL, this is not much of an issue, because the Chinese Malaysians wear western clothes, and so do the cigarette girls who frequent the bars at night. I wear sleeveless shirts and bare legs because the heat is unbearable. One of the first things that Dolores ever said to me in the office was HR is going to come after you for dressing that way, so I promptly went to H and M and got two cotton long-sleeved shirts to cover my shoulders. I wore them for a day or two. I have learned a lot about clothing since then. I assumed that there would not be an issue with my outfits in India since it is not predominately Muslim. (I only have four dresses that I rotate throughout the week.) Who cares! By the end of the trip, I had bought three pairs of leggings and two scarves, but I admit, I did miss the celebrity status and attention! When I returned to work I told this story, and it gave everyone the opportunity to say something about my dress at work. The main problem is exposing the armpit, which is considered a dirty, and private part of the body. When the Minister of Education came to launch the first i-textbook in Malaysia, by Learning Port (where I work), I was the only one in bare legs. Even though I covered my shoulders, and wore my one dress with sleeves, I admit that my bare legs were too offensive.
Unlike KL, which is a continuous thrum of traffic, Jaipur squeaked and screamed, stopped and started; people darted, rickshaws strained, colored saris sailed among turbans and the dark thick hair of girls and bustling women. Jaipur was frenetic. We fell into bed with movies of castles and moats with deadly amphibians, inner walls with rolling rocks and burning tar, and soldiers with sabers at the ready.
We decided to squeeze in one more fort before we moved on to Agra. We could see the fort in the distance, so we knew we would not get lost. Then our driver turned off the road, away from the fort. I tried to inform the driver that he was going the wrong way, that we did not need to go on the dirty bumpy roads, but he just said elephant. What the hell is elephant I thought sure that I was not hearing him right. No problem… in a minute….We turned down a street, and he asked us to get out of the van. Before us stood an elephant. Dolores had told me earlier that day that she would pay anything to ride an elephant, and here we were!!! The other word our taxi driver knew was sister. (Everyone, including us, was his sister.) This sister knew someone who had elephants. Way back in the day of sultans, the sultan had elephants. He and the royalty used to watch the elephants fight. When the day of fighting elephants for the sultan’s entertainment ended, the elephants went to the circuses. I am not sure what the elephant caretakers did, but they lost their place in society for a while. The circus elephants were abused, and finally all elephants were banned from circus fare. So the government gave the next generation of elephants back to the next generation of elephant caretakers. All of them lived in a village, with pasture to roam. They supplemented the cost of elephant care with elephant rides. I mounted my elephant by stepping on his trunk and swinging up and over his head. Dolores chose to have the elephant lie down for her. We paraded silently through town picking up children, dogs goats, and donkeys along the way. The elephants were regal, and for the rest of the trip I kept comparing the peace and beauty of India to the swing and sway of that ride.
We missed the fort destination, but we gained an elephant ride.
The next leg of our triangular journey was to Agra. It was late, but we had a hotel reservation in Agra. It was dark when a few hours later, the driver drove off the main road again. This time, Dolores told me later, she was clutching her mace gun. Here we were in the dark, driving on a dirt path/trail/field into an unknown situation. According to the driver, he was stopping off to see his sisters. Finally, we stopped outside of a cement block house. We entered the house to be greeted by two women and three children. I do not know who was staring harder at whom. They were utterly baffled by my lack of shawl cover, and we were utterly baffled by their beauty and their living conditions. The little girl, who must have been eight, spoke English. She had little brothers. We never figured out the dynamics of the family – who was Auntie, and where was Dad? Three others straggled in, a grandmother, a teenage girl, and a little boy. We drank ginger tea and smiled a lot, and visited their shrine, before climbing in the van again.
Now it was late, and though we were grateful for the opportunity to meet our driver’s sisters, we were not looking forward to another hour of driving with possible side trips, but we were at his mercy. We honked our way south to Delhi and stopped for dinner.
Then we continued to stop every 15 minutes—no problem, just a minute. When we stopped for gas, he asked for five thousand ringgits. He dropped one, which I picked up and gave to him, but he claimed that I had not given it to him. The gas meter read 1,500 ringgits, so I asked for the rest of the money back, which he gave me with a reluctant smile. He insisted that he needed tax money (I think), but we held onto the money, and he was pissed. We learned later in the trip that he actually did need tax money. He stopped one more time on the side of the road, at a concrete structure with a man sleeping outside, in a bed, five feet from the road, in front of an open barred window outside. This man never moved. The man inside the bare lightbulb lit room was in bed. Our driver talked to him for a while and off we went. Now he was angry and we still had no sim card and no idea how we were going to find our hotel. We started driving around the city while the driver yelled at me to ask directions to anyone who passed by. Finally, we saw a hotel, ordered him to stop the van, grabbed our backs and left him there. We never saw him again.
We went to the Taj Mahal the next day. For some reason, we hired a guide, which was a big mistake. Men in India, worry about women, and neither Dolores nor I are women that fall into the worry-about-me category. I like being treated like a princess, but there are limits. This man sounded like a tape recorder. It was as if he was scared that if he stopped, he would forget his three-hour speech. Dolores was evasive, and I was tolerant. I kept hearing, where is Dolores? Come Dolores? Finally, I used our ex- driver’s words when the guide called me, “in a minute,” and that seemed to make things easier. He was particularly irritated when I posed with all of the boys and girls who wanted photos of me. I was also stopped by parents who wanted to photograph their toddlers and infants with me. I had not donned my leggings and scarf yet. I could write a dissertation of dress in Asia. When we went into the temple, we were required to wear booties, or we could take off our shoes. Dolores refused to pollute the world with one more pair of synthetic booties, so she chose bare feet. In India, everyone spits; it’s vile and abundant, to put it mildly. I could not get used to it. If you talk to anyone who has visited India, spit is bound to come up. It came up with Dolores when she realized that people spit in temples too.
We decided to take a train to Delhi. It would be faster than a car, safer and cheaper too. The pictures tell the story of our journey. We felt as if we were in a movie, with crowded platforms, people spilling off the side of the train, men jostling through the train with boiling hot tea on their heads, people piled on top of people. We also discovered where the homeless sleep, although my friend swears that all of those families sleeping on the train platform were waiting for trains.
We made it to Delhi late that night. We thought our hotel was just 500 meters from the station, which is was, but we could not find it, so we got a tuk tuk at a fixed price to drive us there. My Trip Advisor review for this hotel is not exactly positive. I was tired, but not tired enough to drag the duvet with blood stains on it down to the front desk to exchange it for a new one.