It's a well worn cliche that people go to India to find themselves.
I'd be happy to just find my ass, having been kicked around so much. India throws everything at you and takes no prisoners. You either love it or not. Let's just say I'm not in love.
I have run the gauntlet of every survival instinct to fascination, to disgust, to enthralment to tears to wonder and then all over again. Kinda like some perverted rebirth reincarnation thing but I'm aware of that last pile of shit I just dodged.
If you're doing India, don't do it like me. India is a journey onto itself. You need a clear head, a full tank and prep. For me, It seemed like Trish and I had already summited in Japan. But then a fantastic solo in Myanmar cost me my last six shots. So when I arrived after an all too brief overnight in Bangkok, I was already spent, with no plans or itinerary, and in high season and in 40 degree heat, thinking I could wing it all. Stupid me.
Having dreamed of India for years, I've been stripped down and shown the folly of my dreams. I can only akin it to what I've heard about parenting. You have no idea unless and until you experience it.
Laid back south India was my entry point. It's known as the most sane and laid back part of India. I shuddered at what I saw, not realizing I was in shock and quickly overwhelmed. It's also known as the most progressively minded, best educated state and has the first elected communist government in the world. None of that mattered as the heat and shock drove me north in the first of several panic-filled decisions.
Here the famous Chinese fishing nets, now more of a tourist draw, were once a mainstay of the fishing industry and supposedly inherited from the time of those Mongols led by Khan, notorious meat eaters. I don't buy that urban myth as the Mongols never made it this far. Like everybody else who comes to India, they likely hit the beaches at Goa and stayed.
In Fort Cochin, Kerala I holed up in a homestay with this middle class, Pentecostal family. I wasnt expecting Christmas carols as soon as I landed.
Anyway both kids are in uni and they're all incredibly engaging and friendly and I got to meet the extended family. But it's a business so one's antenna is always up when money is involved.
They proudly built an addition to their home with the expectation of the 18yr son marrying and moving in with a new family. Until then, $10-20 gives you a choice of concrete cells---an easy income stream for them. I got the only one with a/c though they wanted to charge me extra to use it. Other backpackers were shocked at my extravagance. I hope they enjoyed their $10 hole more then I did. In fairness to this family, they had the best wifi in India and their digs were surrounded by neighbours and trees instead of road noise.
I've seen more interesting waterworlds eg Inle Lake, Mekong Delta, but none this quiet as each and every one of us on the boat would fall asleep. The absence of horns and stress will do that to you.
India is every extreme fused together.
The most colourful---whether it's vivid splashes of women's' saris or the mounds of rubbish.
The most nasal challenging---layers of stench and waste whether human or animal or rubbish drift about. One learns to breath though the mouth or risk choking.
The most polluted city in the world is no longer Beijing, but is Delhi. Having done both I'd have to concur.
The noisiest---the non-stop honking, the music, the volume of 'normal conversational tones', the festivals and wedding (season right now), the morning mosques....
The dirtiest--- from all of the above to the raw sewage, to the minefields of excrement to the gobs of spit ( to be fair, there are vast tracts of the world I haven't explored so this dubious distinction is uncrowned).
The most challenging in terms of scams, touts, hustlers. Perhaps. But who's to say what you would do if you lived on the edge. Would you not say and do anything to the walking ATMs in order to survive and feed your family? I think people have me loads of space comparatively speaking, for when people assume you can't speak English and aren't pale-faced, it's amazing how quickly they back off.
The royal city, also known as the pink city and one of the golden triangle of destinations (Agra, and Delhi being the others).
Hawa Mahal, built by the royal palace so the ladies could discretely watch the masses below. Kinda meh, if you ask me. Actually I feel that way about the whole city.
The Mughuls were descendants of the Mongols, raise your hand if you knew that, I sure didn't. Anyway they adored marble, other stones, jewels and mirrors inlaid into said white marble.
And because they were Muslims, they were anti-idolatrous and loved symmetry, stylized floral motifs, arches, and would sneak in the odd animal representation.
The Mughals were really into double columns.
Pushkar is renowned for two things.
The camel fair which attracts tens of thousands in November.
And the holy Lake Pichola. Brahma created it by dropping a lotus flower. Hindus should bathe in it's ghats once in their life so it's a place of pilgrimage. Gandhi's ashes are scattered here, and supposedly both Vishnu and Brahma made appearances, but they being Gods, who's to say whether it's a load of camel dung or what?
The most unexpected and surprising things happen---Just when you think all of the above have beaten you down, out of the blue someone throws you a warm greeting or helps you out with no expectation. Or you find a sliver of calm which can be as intense as the sensory overload, such as this hill overlooking Pushkar where I enjoyed a brief chat with this local.
But I'll remember Pushkar for the non-stop weddings, street parties and celebrations---all at full volume. At first it was exciting...then it got irritating. Hotel staff told me they've learned to tune that raucous junkyard symphony out. And the there's the 5a.m Hare Krishnas drumming and mosque calls to prayer which kept sleep and rest to a minimum, which also didn't help threats of a lingering bug and or gastro issues.
Everybody warns you to be on guard and to trust no one, not even them. That's not an easy way to roll. I heard many many stories of travellers being fleeced, I likely have too, but with minimal loss. But having your back up all the time is exhausting. Besides seeing all Indians that way also mis-represents the many decent people I met from where a warm greeting or a helping hand came easily and freely.
Udaipur was an unplanned destination, not that anything was thought through this trip. It was the airport that drew me. But Marc Brown was right, as was my guide book, it's likely the most romantic place in India and where I had my best day and meal. I left too early but got tired of crap digs and was lured by a western, midrange hotel in Delhi.
Before that, I met Agnes, a devout Catholic and social worker from Korea, and together we hired a guide to trek through the countryside. Fantastic side of India, and one of three outstanding days in India. Agnes was rather quirky with a missionary kinda bent. But she looked me in the eye and saw how tired I was and suggested I cut short India and leave out the hyper intense leg of Varanasi. Once I heard that in concert with Trish telling me the same, I waved the white flag and booked an early passage home. Suddenly India got lighter.
Child labour laws aside, I saw many kids working and not in school...whether begging, or here in a brickyard, or in the family run guest houses.
Travelling solo has so many wonderful perks and rewards. I would meet so many interesting people, local and foreigner.
I drank wine with Pascale from Switzerland, a 71yr old multiple martial arts expert, calligrapher, guitar playing romantic who was hoping to give his troubled 21 yr old son the round the world life-defining experience he got 50 yrs ago.
I shared a meal with Emrich, a German who'd lived in India for 30 yrs, raising his son there. He had to get out. He citied pollution, moral decay and all around madness.
I drank with two Sherpas backpacking their own country. They wouldn't let me leave until I ranked what I thought were the most beautiful women in the world. She lives in Ottawa and is waiting for me.
I smoked with 3 Indian doctors who worried about how climate change was shortening their winters.
I chatted with Christian and his wife, two Canadians using their video log to crowdsource their round the world trip. (Wewannago.tv).
And on the list could go.
India is a total mind game. But it's also profoundly lonely and at times one feels a complete sense of vulnerability and ch onus stress. These are new to me, but it's how much of the world lives. We lose sight of that.
Special thanks to Sanjiv and Irene from Silicon Valley who threw me a lifeline and bought me a resplendent meal at the Leela Palace, nestled on the lake. High end and inventive Indian dining, for example lamb shank wrapped in saffron bread. However it was their company that was the draw. Both seasoned and well heeled travellers, they bravely and wisely brought their 10 and 11yr old kids. The former seemed to be overwhelmed, I completely got that....not even a 5 star push button bubble can shield you from India.
Food wise I wimped out with the street food. Largely because I discovered how intolerant my body is of chilli, which is like going to China with an intolerance of soya. No fun, so I missed out on loads of fantastic looking food and wound up eating at template restaurants often described as multi-cuisine---meaning they do nothing very well. And I gotta say, though street food looked great, hygiene and pollution issues made anything off the street look dodgy. If I was covered in dust and dirt, what about the tandoori chicken that's been hanging? I'm getting old.
Ahhhh...the most polluted city in he world, and of course I stayed in Paharganj, the epicentre, with tight, narrow congested streets lined with budget hotels. Otherwise, not worth mentioning.
The mode of transport everywhere. One morning I piled into one of these with 7 locals and a driver to cheaply get to the Taj Mahal. I reckon driving one of these is like playing a video game with high visual and audio processing involved. I never once saw an accident.
Not planning ahead means you don't get on tourist cars. Instead you ride the rails in frigid class with the locals.
India truly is an unlikely miracle. Such a vast, diverse, and intense country holding together is astonishing. Yes there's tension and their history is a violent one. But it's a place on the move. The largest group of tourists, wherever I visited or stayed are local---the burgeoning Indian middle class (though still barely a fifth of the country's 1.2 billion ppl). While middle income earners are mushrooming, their numbers still pale to that other demographic giant China, who've done a better job of reducing the under of $2 a day incomers while building a significant middle class. Nevertheless, it's nice to see and meet Indians travelling.
Most of the educated Indians I spoke with understand the daily frustrations and biblical inefficiencies afflicting progress (and travellers) and attribute it to desperatly poor and unschooled people living for the moment (which doesn't sound very Hindu-like if you ask me). One bloke suggested that much of the IT boom is an illusion, in that India lacks its own RnD and has borrowed heavily from Japanese and American know-how, especially in the aerospace sector. That sounds like branch-plant Canada to me.
While they see change and are hopeful, most want out, or knew they would have to go for more opportunities.One man from Gujarat told me that when someone gets an American visa for work, it's like a massive celebration for the whole community that looks like a wedding.
If there's one thing India has done exceedingly well, and deserves to be proud of, it's the Taj Mahal. Despite the smog, the haze, the pollution, the crowds, its lovingly maintained and every bit as beautiful as billed, breathtakingly so.
I spent an afternoon with Arne from Germany (another long haul loner with a wife left behind) on this rooftop, hoping we'd see a colour change during sunset. The haze was impenetrable, though the view still stunning.
The southern approach to the TJ, which alone is a masterpiece.
Twenty two years of slave labour, imported artisans from Persia, Euro-designers, limitless marble, jewels, and 500 kg of gold ( since plundered by the Brits) and a treasury bled to death by the heart broken Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who commissioned this mausoleum in 1632for his favourite wife who died at childbirth.
An engineering and mathematical marvel, symmetrically designed.
So how unique is the TJ?
One story says Shah Jahan had the hands of 800 craftsmen chopped off after construction. He didn't want anything this masterpiece facsimiled anywhere.
Built on a marble platform so the backdrop would always be the sky, even a foggy polluted one.
One of two mosques that flank the complex.
For a couple of days I buddied up with Ying from Shanghai...a rare solo and female, Chinese who had also done Myanmar and most of south east Asia a few years back. One of the few Chinese here, it was a joy to meet such a fiercely independent and brave Chinese woman. She reckons India's seen as too rough for the ubiquitous Chinese cookie cutter tour groups.
Interestingly, Shah Jahan who ruled and built the TJ, was imprisoned here by his son and spent the last eight years of his life staring off at the TJ from a distance from a window such as this.
After he died, his daughter returned him to the TJ where his remains were reunited with his favourite wife.
In the past four months Canada had an election which brought in a new PM. The world noticed. People from Myanmar to Malaysia to India remarked about the new government and I boasted about the diversity of the new cabinet.
I always feel most Canadian not when we do well at the Olympics or hockey, but when I'm abroad.
If like my friends Marc and Linda, Kim, and Ed and Emily you've touched parts of India, take a bow. This is K2 for edgy-seeking travellers, and you know it.I've always been rather proud of being a traveller, but until now, I've never been humbled, never waved the white flag. I'm returning home earlier than anticipated, also a first. I got my ass repeatedly kicked. However I watched myself get up every time. And though I've yet to process all that I've done, I know I've learned to see things about myself and others that only this kind of travel could give me. Hard lessons learned. Would I come back? Not any time soon. There's only so much mayhem, stench and pollution I can handle. However I will if my nephews or nieces want me to take them. Then they'll have to do all the heavy lifting. But I'll be better prepared for another ass kicking.
Next: home ( for now....)...then Mexico City, Miami and the Barbados