A lot of people asked me why I was going to India in the heat of the summer, and as the monsoon was about to hit. India has always called me, but over the last couple of years I had been thinking more and more about India. The colors, the smells, the people, yoga, Hinduism, the textiles and handcraft, the beaches of the south and the gateway to the Himalayas...all if it. I yearned to be consumed by the culture.
I keep a running list of Travel To Do's...places like India I've always wanted to visit. Morocco, New Zealand, Fiji, Ghana, Iceland, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, South Africa, and more...I want to see it all. I spent Christmas alone in 2014, sitting at my favorite teahouse in Cesky Krumlov smoking shisha and intention-setting. I told myself I'd make it a priority to make 1-2 of these happen each year, exploring new ground. And I set the biggest and most important intention I'll ever set: to continue to be true to myself. And, further, I'd write a book. Let's start with India, I thought. Why not?! It's like a rite of passage for the solo traveler. I had been wanting to meet Arushi and the artisans I once worked with while at Ethnotek. So I booked my ticket. That's half the battle right?
A seasoned traveler, having traveled and lived all over Europe, the States and traveling to South America, I was looking forward to uncharted territories further East. I knew India would be different...not only because I hadn't traveled more than two weeks at a time previously. I had spoken to Indian friends and a few gal friends who had traveled India solo. I had heard stories of misadventures aplenty: the famed 'Delhi Belly,' the staring culture, the cremation ceremonies in the holy city of Varanasi, the heat, the mess of the monsoon, the poverty and sheer numbers of people...all of it. As I always do, I attempted to approach the meeting of India with an open mind and an open heart. I saw and experienced the good...so much of it. But I also saw and experienced the not-so-good. Let me preface this by saying that the stories of good outweigh the not-so-good stories, but it seems that the latter always tend to make a bigger impact. I value authenticity, so I am going to share it all with you right now. The grit and the great. Here we go...
India is simultaneously the most chaotic and calm place I have ever experienced...and probably ever will experience. It's the single place in this world where you can have a solitary religious experience, surrounded by thousands of people and honking tuk tuks, cars and motorbikes. It's bizarre and beautiful. It makes me want to cry, puke, smile, cringe and scream in frustration all at once. Namaste, Mothaf*ckas: crass, but so perfect for India. Allow me to explain. India is - by far - the most cerebral place I've ever traveled. What does that mean? It means you have to think about every single interaction in India: from simply crossing the street to buying a pair of pants at the market, and grabbing a tuk tuk to the airport. For this reason, Indians, as a people, are the most resilient culture I've ever encountered. It's exhausting. Everyone in India is a businessperson. Super-savvy, persistent, driven. Even uneducated (book wise) tuk tuk drivers are damn smart. You have to be to survive. But, my friends, it's both a blessing and a curse.
I do not have a desire to set your expectations about India, but I'll share my experiences in an effort to give you an understanding of what traveling in India is like. Lesson #1: You will likely get sick. I thought I was above it. Had a stomach of steel. It doesn't matter. You're in India. If the spice and massive amount of cream, butter and oil used while cooking doesn't get you, it'll take one cook not washing his hands to land you in the bathroom all night. Or even the hospital. Happened to me in Rishikesh. I ventured to Mama Dosa, home to over one hundred varieties of dosa, with Jitan, whose father owns Shiv Shakti Guesthouse in Rishikesh. I opted for the Special Aloo Paneer Dosa. Bad idea. The next morning, I awoke at 3am feeling a bit off, as I was about to head out for the sunrise hike. I made the decision not to hike, and then spent the next 7 hours tasting dosa from both ends. I must admit, I even pooped my pants a little bit in a moment where my ego took over, thinking I was okay - but that's a rite of passage for the solo traveler in India too, right?! I'll keep telling myself that. Arun, the night receptionist and in-house yoga instructor, knocked on my door insisting upon taking me to the hospital. By the time 10am rolled around, I had sore stomach muscles from dry heaving, and there was nothing left inside of me. I reluctantly went to the hospital. I don't think you've really traveled India until you've traveled solo, as a woman, and visited the hospital to give a stool sample. Humbling. Turns out, it was inexpensive and though we waited a while, the doctor was great and advised against my strong American antibiotics. I obliged. In the end, it was an experience. And the smiles and glances exchanged with the mountain woman in the thick, hand-dyed wool red gypsy headscarf and mountain garb was well worth it. Chitta Happens.
Lesson #2: It is a staring culture. EVERYONE will stare at you. Women in their beautiful saris, children with curiosity in their eyes, and men...the men will stare. Hard. Everywhere you go. On buses. In train stations. Tuk tuk drivers. Shop owners. Everyone. If this bothers you, you might consider leaving your western clothes at home. Wearing clothing like kurtas and pants that cover the body will help. I'm a huge believer in personal expression, and clothing is one way in which I personally express myself...but in the case of cultural nuances, it's best to blend. Trust me on this one.
Lesson #3: Non-AC sleeper car overnight journeys in the middle of summer=one experience I wouldn't recommend. Okay, it's an experience and I'm stronger because of it, but next time I travel to India I'll stick to AC for journeys 5+ hours. You might think I sound like a spoiled white chick. I kind of do. Except for that the taxi driver en route to the station in Haridwar from Rishikesh told me that even he doesn't take non-AC journeys and cautioned me, "be careful." Well shit. To be fair, it was all I could get. Think about that 1.4 billion person population again. Now consider how hard it is to snag a train ticket. It's damn hard. Though it wasn't my first choice to travel non-AC for the (what I thought would be) 14-hour journey, it was all I could grab if I wanted to go to Varanasi. So I went. When I arrived to the station, it was a cultural experience in and of itself. Hundreds of people lying on blankets outside of the station. Families waiting for trains. Friends bullshitting over homemade dal rice. I was instantly transported into another world. The scene was the same in the train station. I was the only white person in sight. If nothing else, this'll teach humility and resilience, I thought. It did. With a near-dying phone (will I ever learn?!), I made my way to a restaurant and attempted to plug in my phone. Still without an appetite, I bought bottled water and digestive biscuits and put my nose in "Beyond the Beautiful Forevers". A couple of hours until my train left. The owner came over by me and made sure I knew what platform to go to. Nice.
I ate my biscuits and bought my time, and then grabbed my phone. It hadn't charged at all. Sweet. This means I wouldn't be able to chart my journey or call friends/family to let them know I was alright if something went awry. I've been in this position before. Remember the Poland sojourn back in the day?! Yup. So, I spent 5 minutes writing down the phone number and address to the hostel in Varanasi before the phone died. I tried to plug in the phone at a momo stand on my platform, where I laid down my towel and had a seat, but the power cut had other plans. I sat there in darkness, surrounded by men. You see, you'll find many men out in the streets while women are inside with their families. But there are also a lot of families traveling. I hoped I'd be lucky enough to have a family sit near me on the train. A train rolled in and I asked a few people if it was the right one before jumping on. Not many people around me spoke English, but in the end I was successful and found my bed at the end of the train car as Indians tried to push past me in haste. Everyone's in a rush, but no one is on time, remember?! I had a non-AC 3 top bunk. That meant there were two others below me. Same scene across from me, and stacked two kiddy-corner from me. I observed my surroundings as soon as I situated my bags. A family below me. Two children, a little boy about 6 and a sweet little girl, likely 2 years of age. Mom was wearing a vibrant yellow sari, and dad had a mustache and henna-tinted brown wavy locks. The parents couldn't have been more than 24 years of age. An educated, higher caste - perhaps college student - looking boy inhabited the top bunk kiddy-corner from me. No doors on our cabin like the train cars in Europe. No linens. Vinyl bunks. The window didn't offer much fresh air for me, but three fans were fixed on the ceiling above me, caked in dust. It was hot and it was nearly midnight. Turns out I wasn't the only one sleeping in the top bunk either...I felt a tickle on my right shoulder and was surprised to see a cockroach. A new friend.
I did sleep. At least for a few hours. I watched my water intake so I wouldn't have to get down, leave my packs and head to the toilet past the six men who were sitting/lying in the area in between train cars outside of the toilet. It reeked of urine and feces. The young man sitting down around the corner to the right kept his eyes fixed on me. A friend told me not to make eye contact, but I found a better tactic: acknowledge their stares with a "If you touch me, I will cut you." stare back. Worked every time. Caught them off-guard. But my god, I hate to do that...it's so not me. Survival tactics. At some point I had to get down and pee, I reluctantly walked to the toilet. The door was already open, and it featured standing urine on the floor. Not the first time I had encountered this, I hoped the urine wouldn't exceed the height of my flip flops and pour over. Successful mission. Wet wipes became my best friend. I awoke early in the morning, around 7am to see the educated, higher caste college student boy talking on the phone under a blanket. Masturbating. I'm not joking. Wish I was. I had heard many stories like this, but always chalked it up to westerners not being mindful of what they were wearing (not that this excused the male's grotesque behavior). But no, this was different. At least he wasn't looking at me, right?! I wanted to punch him as hard as I could in the balls for thinking that this was acceptable behavior, and for doing this in the vicinity of me and a family. Rancid.
The temperatures increased as the morning went on. I was slated to arrive at 1pm, but was aware the journey could take longer. Still not eating, I tried to keep myself busy by reading and writing, and flirting with the little boy across from me. He started it. I had no idea how I was going to tell which stop was mine, since I wasn't by a window and the station signs aren't evident like they are in Europe. So I sat there, patiently waiting and aware, as the train frequently slowed and then came to a stop. I knew we were delayed. As the temperatures increased, so did the sweat. I have never been more uncomfortable in my life. I took my probiotics and antibiotics the doctor ordered, and closed my eyes and breathed slowly, evenly. A uniformed man walked by below, fining the staring young man and a couple of his friends down below who were riding ticketless. I waited patiently and then took the opportunity to ask when we'd be at Varanasi. One hour. it was already 1pm. In the meantime, a new passenger had joined us - a young man sitting next to the family. Probably my age. A new ally. Sigh of relief.
walked down the latter looking for some air, and to look out the window to get my bearings. My little friend down below - the six-year-old - put his oily dal rice hands all over the vinyl seat. The smells were strong. I was sweating. It was a mixture of dal rice, body odor, urine, shit, lychee juice, and more...I couldn't have been more ready to be done with this journey. Outside the window, villagers shit alongside the train, walked with their goats, and carried their children across the tracks. About 15 hours in, the train continues and soon we stop at a station. Watching out for me, my new ally mouths to me that this is Varanasi. Masturbating boy asks me where I'm going. Oh god, I knew he knew English and I knew this would happen at some point, hoping I didn't have to ask him for any help. Thank goodness my ally came through. I gave the masturbating boy a short answer without much information. Handled. Grabbed a taxi and got a little lost, then 19 hours later, door-to-door, I had arrived to Stops Hostel. Thank God.
Lesson #4: You will get taken advantage of and overcharged. But it's not just because you're a foreigner. It's a cultural thing. Indians get overcharged too. Remember how I said you have to think about every single interaction?! It's a bargaining culture. Play, or you'll get played. It - surprisingly - didn't happen to me frequently, and when you realize your haggling over dollars and cents, it's not that big of a deal. Here's a scenario for you: a 35km journey from Haridwar to Rishikesh should have been around 400 rupees. That's nearly 8 USD. They told me 600. I said no and walked away. They followed me we finally agreed on 500. Less than 10 USD. I was arguing over about $1.50 in savings, on principle. I don't want to set the standard for the next foreigner that comes along to get taken advantage of. But know that it's a waste of time to feel like a victim. If you value something, be okay with what you've spent on it. And try not to let your mind linger on the fact that you were taken advantage of. Life is a lot more pleasant when you put things into perspective, and your experience will be much better.
Lesson #5: Human life is valued differently. I can't justify this and won't expand much on this one, but when a country is overpopulated if you don't move with the flow, it's easy to get moved by it. En route to Agra one day to see the Taj two villagers crossed the busy freeway that was built through their once pristine farmland and were hit and killed. The villagers rushed the highway in protest, covering the four lanes of traffic and creating a chaotic mess for all who were commuting into work that morning. Sadly, this stuff happens frequently in India. In Varanasi, the holiest city in India and Lord Shiva's chosen city, families bring dead bodies of loved ones in preparation for rebirth to the Mother Ganga. Some say it smells of sandalwood and burning flesh. But it's not a sad place. It's seen as a celebration of life. People go to that river to bathe in its holy waters. You might think it's repulsive, but to them it's a blessing.
Okay, that's the grit. Life is just completely different in India. Not better or worse, just different. And, amidst all of the chaos of the honking and pushing and the smells and the men peeing everywhere you look in public, I found India to be incredibly spiritual. Oddly peaceful. Beautiful. The Muslim call to prayer. The live music pouring out of the temples after Aarti at dusk. The people are beautiful, and curious, and warm. I found allies in shop owners, guesthouse night men, taxi drivers, train passengers, and beyond. And I wouldn't change my experience for anything. I now know the importance - more keenly than ever before - of going with the flow and letting go of stimuli out of my realm of control. And I know that if you can travel as a solo female in India, you can travel anywhere solo. And I will. Stay tuned for posts on traveling solo and more...and - as always - let me know if there's anything you're particularly curious about.
Namaste, mothaf*ckas. And don't forget: chitta happens.