Writing has been a struggle lately. My thoughts seem to sweep through my brain, too quickly to translate into words. Coherence eludes me. I wanted to wait and allow this last trip time to settle, time to process, time to seep into my bones before I attempted to set pen to paper. But the possibility of losing moments of memory as time passes forces me to write now, before it withers away. Memory is funny that way. When looking back, I can easily recreate scenes that revolve around a certain picture I remember. And occasionally, a once forgotten memory will surface, bobbing in front of me, waiting to be recalled. A time that I hadn’t thought of in ten years. And there it is, perfectly waiting.
Returning to India was not what I had imagined. Maybe that was the problem all along, the expectations. When I visit a new country, there are absolutely no expectations, only curiosity. And however odd, eccentric, terrifying, and beautiful a new place may be, it is all part of the experience. But when one sets expectations, those needless and constricting concepts, a place will never be enough. And its beauty is stripped, even in all of its original glory.
On our first day in Delhi, I wrote a short piece about returning to a place. “It’s not quite as I remembered. Nothing will ever compare to that first moment of fear when the Chennai airport doors opened to thousands of screaming men in the dead of night. The small bikes and cars seemed to weave more, horns blasted more frequently, and I seemed unable to keep up with the jostling stimuli. India is just as hectic now as it was then. Cows and dogs still find haven along roadsides, tiny tea shacks still serve the best tea in the world, and slums still line major roadways. It is all the same yet so different, calmer in a way, mostly due to the dulling of initial culture shock I felt on that day long ago. It’s like all firsts. The first kiss, the first dive, the first flight. The firsts inhabit such anticipation, such anxiety and pent up joy. And no matter how amazing the second time is, it just never lives up to that first moment”.
Delhi held so much anxiety, so much fear for me. I felt claustrophobic among the throngs of people, holding my camera close, weaving in and out of beggars and peddlers and locals. My gut wretched every time I got in a car or tuk-tuk that wasn’t organized by the tour, panic overtaking my most basic instincts. It was so difficult for me to enjoy my time there, which is unfortunate given the chaotic beauty of the city. We toured the Jama Masjid, built in 1650. with its magnificent domes and miniurets made of sandstone and white marble. We sat amid Sikhs at their carpeted temple, surrounded by men in turbans. And we strolled through the vast gardens of the Red Fort.
We then took an overnight sleeper train to Varanasi. It was originally a 12 hour journey, but due to delays common to the Indian railway system, we remained trapped in our bunks for nearly 18 hours. We crammed eight people to a carriage, bunks three high per wall, sleeping on narrow beds with our duffels and all. Men traipsed through the carriages nearly every hour yelling “chai, chai, masala chai.” Once we reached our lodging in Varanasi, we cleaned up and headed into town for a sunset boat trip along the Mother Ganges to watch the nightly ceremony honoring the life source of India, the Ganges River. My wishes floated along the current, as I pushed the small leaf bowl of marigolds into the water, the central candle illuminating my hopes and desires.
The next morning, we returned to the river to witness the daily rituals of local Hindus: bathing and drinking the holy water, and hundreds of cremations at the ghats. The Hindu people believe in cremation at death to purify the soul. Once cremated, the ashes are spread along the Mother Ganges.
I find India chaotic, dirty, intense, and beautiful, much like the grit of life. Driving in the country side, you see fruit and vegetables growing in peoples’ backyards, food being hand harvested and prepared from scratch daily, milk from the communal cows being made into yogurt and paneer. It is slow living, a life so completely in touch with the food cycle and animal husbandry. Intimacy with the cycle of life and death, both with animals and with humans. Death is not some sanitized unknown that takes place in a hospital. It is witnessed closely by friends and family, through the entire process of illness to their last breath to cremation. And emotions are not stunted, wailing with grief and mourning is welcomed. There is a sense of emotional maturity about a culture that promotes self expression over the facade of “I’m perfectly happy” that pervades western cultures. It is refreshing, this purity of emotions. If we could just pause for a moment, we could listen to the infinite wisdom India and her people have to offer.
After tasting the famous Blue Lassi, we navigated the corridors of vendors until we reached a small shop selling cashmere, pashmina, and silk. We learned about the differences in fabrics, their origins, and how to distinguish authentic versus fake material. I definitely struggled in resisting to buy some beautiful rugs, but minimalism won out thankfully!
We then spent an entire day traveling to Agra, home of the bewitching Taj Mahal. The fifth Moghul emperor constructed this masterpiece in honor of his wife who died during childbirth. The perfectly symmetrical white marble tomb was built between 1632 and 1654, highlighting one of the greatest love stories of all time. As cliché as it sounds, my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal literally took my breath away. The sun reflects off every curvature, the white marble emanates the purity of love, and the long pool jutting from the center reflects a perfect mirror image.
Agra fort was quite impressive as well. I especially loved the Janagiri Mahal, with its cohesive mash of architecture and styles representative of multiple religions. Just looking at the entrance, one can see the Star of David, geometrical patterns characteristic of Islam, flower templates of Buddhism, and Gothic pointed arches. The inner palaces glistened in the sunlight, white marble with precious gems inlaid in marble forming alluring designs.
Our day in Tordi is kind of a blur. I felt so ill and ended up laying in bed all night skipping dinner and the beautiful henna session. When we arrived in Tordi, a small village a few hours outside of Jaipur, we slowly made our way to the sand dunes via camel cart rides. I never realized how huge camels are, and the bedazzled colorful blankets topped off the ride. We hiked to the top of the sand dunes to enjoy sunset over masala chai and biscuits. The rest of the night involved me staring at the painted blue ceiling and stained glass fixtures praying that I wouldn’t die. Dramatic, I know.
Jaipur, the famous pink city, is a central walled old city surrounded by the hustle and bustle of urban India. The pink is really a terra cotta color painted on in anticipation of British royalty visiting the city. We toured the Amber Fort, a beautiful palace of sorts fortified by long stretches of wall meandering along the mountain ridge line. The afternoon was spent strolling through the markets, admiring sacks of lentils, rice, spices, and peppers. We also visited the observatory where the world’s largest sundial tells local time down to two seconds. Astrology is an important part of Indian culture, especially in regards to marriage. At the observatory, there is a large sphere like instrument that points to a birth sign based on shadows from the sun, all of which can be used to help astrologists determine locations and timing for life’s most important events. Seeing the calculations, angles, and extensive measurements used all to determine horoscopes is fascinating.
Whitney and I spent two days along the coast in Goa, just the two of us. We visited Bogmalo Beach, a small locals beach, for the first day and Baga Beach, the popular tourist destination, the next day.
Travel is the ultimate embodiment of vulnerability. There are so many unknowns and daily glimpses of confusion, fear, wonderment, and awe. Frequently, people have their home self and their travel self. Somehow, the miles that lay between home and the new illuminate traits that may be more dormant in everyday life. Literally every second is an adventure and the braver and more daring side predominates. Patience becomes easy as waiting in line for an hour for transportation is the norm. What seems like lunatic driving with no traffic laws and hundreds of weaving cars is actually organized chaos and the thrill of tuk-tuk rides trumps nagging trepidation. The typical rules of hygiene fly out the window as a traveler embraces the grunge look and feels assured that the natural microbiome will protect against common travelers’ diarrhea. Life feels freer, yet more grounded. Somehow with the barrage of stimuli and new sights, the mind becomes clearer and one can focus on the present.