In the words of our friend Katy, India can be…challenging. Truer words were never spoken. It is not a gentle place. It bashes your senses at every turn. When you step out of your hotel the first sense assaulted is your hearing. The roads are chock full of motorcycles, scooters, cars, rickshaws, and tuk tuks all swerving and weaving to get ahead of each other, each one blaring its horn at all times, the louder the better. Next your sight, smell, and taste all realize at once that the very air is assaulting you. The smog is like pea soup, hanging over the entire city. Remember how bad L.A. was in the mid-80s? No imagine the smog got a little worse every day for the next 30 years; then you have the air in a typical Indian city. After just a week here we both have hacking smoker’s coughs without having touched a cigarette.
Further assaulting the nose is the stench. As cows are holy, they walk the streets unmolested, as do monkeys, pigs, dogs, and goats, each leaving their perfumed excrement for our enjoyment. Then there’s the human trash which covers the rest of the street. If that’s not enough, you then have to deal with the hawkers and rickshaw drivers all trying to separate you from your money at once. Keep in mind this is all within minutes of leaving your hotel. Heavy weighs the knowledge that you have weeks of the same in front of you. Like she said, India is…challenging.
But enough of the negative. The reason we’re here is to experience a different culture. And different culture we have found. After escaping Delhi, our first stop was Varanasi, one of India’s holiest cities and one of the oldest continually occupied cities in the world. What makes Varanasi holy is the mighty Ganges River, the Hindus holiest river and considered a goddess, the Mother Ganga. In it people bathe, wash clothes, and sink their dead. Although only children and pregnant women are tied to rocks and sunk, most people are burned on funeral pyres on the banks of the river. Bodies can be seen burning at all times of day and night, and while sitting at restaurants we saw the decorative sheet and marigold covered bodies paraded through the streets at regular intervals.
While walking around the tiny winding alleys of the old city, occasionally we would be caught in the middle of a group of people heading to the temple for prayer. Without warning, we would be surrounded by hundreds of women wearing beautiful saris and gold jewelry on the way to pay their respects to one of the more than 30 gods of Hinduism. It was quite a sight.
After Varanasi we went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Perhaps because they get quite a lot more foreign tourists in to see the Taj Mahal, the streets were a lot cleaner, a welcome surprise. We entered the gates of the Taj soon after dawn in order to get the best light. I must admit, it is a spectacular monument. Or tomb, more accurately. One of the mighty maharajas (kings) built the Taj Mahal to be his wife’s final resting place after she died giving birth to their 14th child. It took 22 years to build in the 17th century, but the maharaja only got to see it completed close up for a few years before his son overthrew him and imprisoned him in the nearby Red Fort where he could only view the Taj from behind bars for the rest of his life.
Our next stop was a bit of respite in the country. We went to Ranthambore to go on safari at a nature preserve. There are apparently over 40 tigers on the grounds, along with many other species of animal. After seeing tons of spotted deer, monkeys, and peacocks, we were starting to give up hope on the tigers. Then, on the way back out, we spotted a beautiful leopard trotting right by the side of the road. He was a magnificent specimen, and just about 20 feet away. Magnificent.
While in the small town we took advantage of going to the ATM a few different times. Let me explain about the money situation. In order to cut down on tax evasion and corruption, the Indian government announced one day that all of the 500 and 1000 rupee bank notes (approx. $10 and $20) were no longer valid. Those notes accounted for 86% of the entire country’s currency. Can you imagine telling a nation of over 1.3 billion people that the vast majority of their money is no longer valid? You might picture bedlam – hours long waits at banks, ATMs running out of money, people unable to buy anything because they either didn’t have the correct change, or have any money at all for that matter. It’s all happening now. Whenever we find a working ATM, we stand in line for a half hour or more so that we can take out the maximum 2000 rupees ($30) allowed. Not a lot of cash when you’re eating out for all your meals since restaurants never take credit cards. We’ve been lucky so far, but there’s a real possibility of finding ourselves unable to procure necessary funds in the future. Not a good feeling.
We’re now in Jaipur, the pink city. The old part of town has always been painted pink, the color of hospitality. Today we visited the Amber Fort, a massive home to a maharaja with four different courtyards for various functions. One needs a lot of space to keep the queen and all the concubines separated and pampered. You could tell from the faded paint and decorations that it must have been a spectacular domicile back in its day.
After a mad auto rickshaw ride back to our hotel oasis we are resting up our senses for another assault on the senses tomorrow.