Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Adventures in India

Hello all! Firstly, I would like to thank everyone for the birthday wishes! I had a great birthday in India, and I will spend a long time talking about it below. India was really fun, but also the biggest culture shock I have experience since being on this program.  I stuck mostly to the metropolitan areas which were crowded, loud, polluted, and insane. It was amazing to see, but I know I could never live in any of the cities I visited; they were just too different. I would definitely go back.  The highlight of my time in India was certainly the trip my parents got me for my birthday which was a 4 day adventure to New Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi.  (Note: This is going to be a really long post. Feel free to skim, or read the sparknotes.)

Day 1: My trip did not leave until 5 PM so when the ship was cleared at 10 AM Skipper, Devin and I headed out into Chennai. As soon as we walked down the gangplank, we were shocked by about 100 motorized rickshaws crowded at the port waiting for us. Motorized rickshaws are like smart cars, but with only three wheels and completely open air (also called a Tuk-Tuk). We grabbed one and hightailed it out of the port. Because we only had a limited time before the trip, we decided to do some shopping. The rickshaw driver took us to a few different (very overpriced) stores where we could not afford to buy anything.  The crafts, however, were stunning. They had huge antique metal urns, enormous carved wooden elephants, tables carved completely from marble, and hand woven rugs hanging from every wall. After a few of these shops, we had to head back to the ship because I still needed some time to pack. On a side note, the rickshaw drivers (like every other driver in India) are completely insane. They speed down the road in their little cars, constantly honking to let everyone else know they are there, swerving between lanes of traffic and narrowly missing head on collisions seconds before they happen. It was like a crazy, scary, intricate, dance. Once back to the ship, I had no idea what to pack, mostly because in some conservative cities in India women are not allowed to show their chests or their knees which pretty much meant I was stuck wearing jeans and tee-shirts for my whole time there. My packing took a while, but before I knew it, it was 5 PM already and my friend Cali and I headed out to the pier. We had no idea of how insane the next 4 days would be. At 5, we boarded a bus to the Chennai airport. There were 70 other kids on our trip, who all needed to be kept track of and taken care of in one of the most crowded countries in the world. The airport was dirty and run down (there were no toilets) and we were too scared to eat any of the food. There were no gates, just a few rows of seats in front of two doors where everyone would leave to walk to the tarmac and catch their planes on foot.  Our flight was delayed an hour, something that apparently is very common in the transportation system in India. Finally, after almost dying of boredom in the tiny airport for 2 hours, we boarded our 2 and a half-hour flight to New Delhi. The flight was uneventful, I got some class work done and slept a little bit. I had a window seat and the view outside my window was just dark black, nothing else. When the captain announced we were near New Delhi, I looked out of the window and almost dropped my soda. Stretching out before me was a sprawling metropolis made of light. It was the biggest thing I have ever seen in my life. It looked like someone had spilled a huge bag of jewels all over a black marble floor, and it stretched out far beyond what the eye could see. The view was breathtaking. When we disembarked the flight, we boarded a bus that took us to our hotel, which we did not reach until about midnight. The hotel was massive and when we walked in Indian women adorned us with necklaces made from fresh flowers and pressed our foreheads with red ink dots (called bindies). The lobby looked to me what I imagine the Sistine Chapel looks like. There were huge Grecian columns everywhere, marble statues, and the ceiling was adorned with an enormous painting of cherubs and saints. Our trip leader let us know that we would need to be in the lobby at 430 the next morning, so after I checked in I headed up to my room and immediately fell asleep.

Day 2: The next morning, we woke up when it was still dark out, got dressed quickly, and headed downstairs for a bite to eat. The hotel had laid out some fresh fruit and coffee that we gobbled up quickly and headed to the charter buses. The buses shuttled us through a run down section of the city to the New Delhi train station. In the grey light, the city looked to me a lot like Sin City (the movie). The buildings were all falling apart and homeless people were bundled up and piled in every doorstep. Fluorescent lights in loud colors blinked and buzzed in every window advertising “modern” hotels that looked like they had fallen into disrepair 10 years ago and were now completely decrepit. I felt like an alien, cruising through the slum in my fancy charter bus, a feeling I would not shake during my entire trip. When we reached the station we all hopped off the bus and entered the low dirty building. Inside, though it was only about 530 AM, people were already bustling around, finding their platform and chatting. However, I was struck by the amount of beggars inside the station. Many of them were horribly disfigured and most of them had small children with them who would cry and beg determinedly. It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen, but also I felt so angry for the children of the beggars who were undoubtedly being raised to believe that begging was a decent job to have as an adult and who may never aspire to be anything more. Many of the beggars could not use their legs and they crawled around behind us despondently. The train showed up, and we boarded. It looked like any other train, if not a little run-down, and we settled in for a two and a half hour nap until we reached Agra. Once there, a charter bus met us and shuttled us all to the hotel we would be eating at for the rest of our time in Agra. The hotel had laid out breakfast, though it was not like any breakfast you would find in the states. There were mashed potatoes, stewed spicy pumpkin, and crispy fried dough (kind of like na’an). Also, the coffee was literally the strongest thing I have ever tasted. They only filled up the glass half full because they expected you to fill it up the rest of the way with milk to balance the strength. Mom, Dad, you would have loved it. After we ate, we all got back on the bus and headed to our first stop which was the fort of Agra. The fort is huge structure made of red stone and white marble from which the entire country used to be governed. It is known as the most important fort in India. We passed through about three beautiful gates before entering the fort, which was filled with carefully groomed gardens and marble palaces. The one thing I kept thinking the whole time I was there was about how much you would love it, Alex. I decided to do a bit of exploring on my own, so I wandered off to take some pictures of the marble palaces that overlooked the rest of the city. I guess I got a little distracted too, because when I turned around my group was gone and I was alone in the enormous expanse of the fort. I freaked out a little bit and looked all over for them, but they were gone. I went to the security gate, but most of the guys there did not speak much English, only kept assuring me that my group had not left. After about 20 minutes of this, I sat down near the first gate, really concerned that they would never be able to find me again. Thankfully, about 10 minutes later, Cali ran up the steps to find me and whisked me away to the charter buses where everyone had been kind enough to wait for me. It was a highly freaky experience, and for the rest of the trip I stuck so close to the group that I felt like a dog on a leash. Once we left the fort, we headed back to the hotel for a quick lunch, and then got back on the buses to go to the Taj Mahal. The drive was pretty quick, and before I knew it we were getting off the bus and walking down the long walkway to the entrance to the Taj. Once there, we had to go through immense security, and were asked to put cloth booties over our shoes so we would not scuff up the surface of the famous marble. When we passed through the first gate and caught our first glimpse of the Taj, I held my breath. The tomb was massive, the domes stretched far up into the sky and the building was a shining white that seemed to glow. The gardens around the Taj were a brilliant green with running water and long lawns of emerald grass. We walked, as if in a trance, to the mammoth structure. When we got up close, I could see that the carved marble was inlaid with precious stones in intricate designs. Earlier, we had seen tables made in the same way and learned that it took two people three years to make one table using the same method they used to build the Taj. I guess that helps to explain why it took tens of thousands of people 22 years to finish the mausoleum. Inside the Taj, there was an ornate screen separating the crowd from the tomb of the King who had built the structure for his Queen when she died in the childbirth of his 14th child.  Next to him, was the Queen’s coffin, carved in the same brilliant white marble.  Next, I wandered around the outside of the Taj. The courtyards were all made of smooth marble and there were two red marble structures on either side.  To me, it felt like something out of a dream. It felt too beautiful to really exist. The group gathered at the other side of the grounds and we watched the sun set over the Taj. The sky turned a light purple and birds soared around the towering domes. The crowds had long since dispersed and I was stuck by the echoey silence of the mausoleum, the attitude, I suppose, the King himself would have intended for the tomb of his wife. By the time we left it was dark and we headed back to the hotel for dinner and then back to the train station. Again, we did not reach the hotel in New Delhi til midnight and most of us immediately passed out.

Day 3: On the morning of March 8, the group woke up at about 8 and we headed out to the buses to take a guided tour of New Delhi. I was expecting the city to look like what I had seen on the way to the train station the day before. However, the tour avoided those areas and instead took us to the city center which looked like any modern American city. There were very modern beautiful buildings mixed with buildings that kind of reminded me of old DC architecture. There were many well manicured gardens and fountains, as well as some beautiful statues of important leaders. It looked like a completely different city from the one I had seen earlier. After the short tour, we headed back to the hotel for breakfast and then checked out of the hotel and once again boarded the buses with all of our luggage. We drove about 10 minutes away, back to the New Delhi airport, but this time we were headed to Varanasi.  The flight was short and uncomplicated, and soon enough we landed in what seemed to be a very rural town. The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the plane was the heat. The dry hot sun hit me like a wall. We all gathered into buses and were shuttled to yet another hotel where we dropped off our luggage amid heavy confusion about who’s room was where and who was rooming with whom. It was about 530 PM and we split into smaller groups to explore the city of Varanasi, a city I literally knew nothing about. We met our guide in the lobby and he explained to us that Varanasi is the third oldest inhabited place in the world. Some of the buildings in the city are over 2000 years old. He said that the inner part of the city, Kashi (the name means “concentrations of cosmic light”) is one of the holiest places in the world for both Hindus and Buddhists. Legend says that thousands of years ago the Hindu god Krishna lit a fire that is still kept burning today, called the Eternal Flame. He explained that in the Hindu religion if you are cremated by the eternal flame, your soul will reach eternal rest, called Moksha. So, many deceased Hindus are brought to the city by their families to be cremated and many Hindus go there if they have a terminal illness and know they will die soon. Also, it is said in the Buddhist religion that Buddha was born and lived across the Ganges River from Kashi. The guide said that the city has, “layers of cosmic energy and vibrations. Even if you are not religious, just walking through the old city you can feel the cosmic energy.” So, that piqued my interest. We set out just as it was beginning to get dark and were shuttled to a huge group of rickshaw drivers who were waiting for us. The entire group of 70 kids plus team leaders split into pairs and we picked a rickshaw who would take us to the inner city (the streets are so narrow and crowded, buses don’t fit). If you guys don’t know what a rickshaw is, look up a picture. It’s basically a guy riding a bike that pulls a little chariot-type thing. The rickshaws took off and in only a few minutes we found ourselves on the huge main road of Varanasi. It was insane. Cars and motorcycles whizzed around us, everyone honking and blasting music, cutting us off, yelling, There are literally no traffic laws. People casually ran red lights and our rickshaw driver alone nimbly avoided getting into major accidents at least 5 times.  The ride was thrilling and fun and something I would definitely do again, but I was also gripping the side of the rickshaw so tight my knuckles turned white. When the ride was over, we all jumped off our rickshaws and took a 20 minute walk to the Ganges River. The streets were shoulder to shoulder people. Little boys followed us around trying to get us to buy postcards, henna, ect , weaving through the crowd like pros. Cows aimlessly wandered around, occasionally stopping in the middle of the road and causing huge traffic jams.  At one point, we passed a shop where an enormous bull had fallen asleep right in front of the counter. Indian people just leaned over the massive snoring animal to conduct their business like it was totally normal.  After a 20 minute walk, we reached our destination. The narrow street widened into a huge “Ghat”, a large series of stairs that leads down to the Ganges. A huge crowd (a couple thousand people) had gathered on the stairs watching the ceremony that was taking place on a platform in front of the River. 8 Brahmins (priests) stood on the platform wearing ornate silk outfits. They sang holy songs, rang bells, lit incense, crushed flowers, and set fires in large silver urns which they then swung around. If you cant picture this, don’t worry, I have videos. About 50 boats crowded in the Ganges River full of even more spectators. This ceremony takes place every sunset in Kashi, a ceremony of thankfulness. I wandered over to the shore of the river and women there were selling little bowls full of fresh flowers and a candle. I bought one for about 3 cents and they lit the candle and explained that you were to make a wish and drop the bowl in the river. I approached the river, made my wish, and dropped the bowl in along with about 30 others who were participating in this tradition. I watched 30 little colorful lights bob happily down the Ganges River and I think at that second I felt a little cosmic energy. After the ceremony, the group walked back to the rickshaws who dropped us back off at the hotel around 9 PM. We ate a quick dinner and headed to bed. The next morning would be a very early one.

Day 4: At 4 AM the shrill ring of our wake up call yanked us out of bed and we stumbled downstairs in a half-sleep. Without so much as a cup of coffee, we boarded the buses that would take us as far into the city as they could get before the streets narrowed. Then, we made the same walk we had made the night before, past the closed shops and the once busy intersections. Now, the city was dark and chilly and eerily quiet. The homeless of the city were still wrapped up in their rags, sleeping, and we passed many sidewalks full of sleeping cattle. Some holy men gathered on street corners, preparing for their ritual baths in the river. Street cars sold little clay cups full of steaming tea. It was a much shorter walk to the ghat this time, without having to cross lanes of dangerous traffic and avoid street beggars. When we reached the ghat, we saw men having their heads and beards shaved. It is a tradition in Hinduism to shave your head when in mourning, so these men had obviously come to the city to say goodbye to a loved one. The same boats still gathered in the river and we all boarded a huge wooden boat, long but still low to the water like a canoe. Two men sat at the head of the boat and once we had all settled in, they began to row. We passed the ghat and glided down the river, the cool morning air chilling us. Our tour guide pointed out important buildings along the banks of the Ganges. There were many palaces, some over 2000 years old, built by Kings who had wanted to live a holy existence on the banks of the holiest river in the Hindu religion. Also, we saw many schools of Hinduism, including the one in which the Beatles had stayed for 6 months when they went through their Hari Krishna phase. The river was still and eerie, the only sounds were of the people who had begun their ritual baths. Soon though, the sun began to rise and people stirred and flocked to the river. Men waded in knee deep to do their laundry, little kids gathered at schools to practice their yoga, older men meditated on the banks. We passed many more ghats, some almost covered in deposits from the river collected there over hundreds of years. Groups of women waded into the river in their full saris to be blessed by the holy water, many with shaved heads indicating they had recently lost their husbands. Little fishing boats carted Buddhists across the river to pray at small temples erected in Buddha’s honor. Soon, the river was crowded with boats, many of which came up alongside us and tried to sell us souvenirs and containers to collect the holy water. Many tried to sell us live fish because apparently it is good karma to release a live fish back into the river. After about an hour, the ship turned around and went the other direction, passing our original ghat and docking upstream where the cremations from the eternal flame take place. We saw huge piles of human ashes on the banks of the river, and saw men smacking the ashes with sticks. Our guide explained to us that human bones are used in black magic and so all of the burned bodies must be hit until they are fine ashes to prevent them from being used in black magic ceremonies. Enormous stacks of sandalwood were piled everywhere to be used for the cremations. As we walked in the old city of Kashi people were bustling around, starting the day. Holy men sat on every street corner in the narrow winding city singing their morning prayers. The city reminded me a lot of the old markets in Jerusalem. Some places were too narrow for two people to walk side by side. Women hurried down the passageways to light candles and leave flowers in little stone temples that had been erected over 1000 years ago in holy spots of the city. I cant really describe the feel of the place, it just seeped age and importance and a little creepiness. I think the hair on the back of my neck was tingling the whole time I was there, so I can see why the guide put so much emphasis on cosmic vibrations. After we had crossed the city, we reemerged into the modern section of Varanasi, and it was a little bit of a relief and a little bit of a disappointment at the same time. The buses were waiting for us, and took us to breakfast (finally) after which we checked out of our hotel. At about 10, we re-boarded the bus and headed to the Deer Park, which is where Buddha is said to have given his first sermon. A monastery had been built in the famous site, now completely destroyed, but we got to explore the famous ruins for about an hour. Then, we headed to the Buddha Museum that holds ancient artifacts of Buddhism including the first statue ever made of Buddha, the best statue ever made of Buddha, and the 2000 year old statue that the emblem of India is based off of today. It was a very cool museum. Later, we piled back on the bus that took us to the Varanasi airport. I wont go into the details of my travel, the delays, the three different planes, ect, but long story short about 7 hours later (around midnight) we were back onboard the MV explorer for the first time in four days. I feel asleep instantly.

Day 5: I was awoken at about 10 AM by a pitter-pattering on my door from Devin and Skipper who were there to deliver my birthday gifts! I got dressed and they swept me away to celebrate. First, we went to a really nice hotel for an amazing fondue lunch. Then, we went to the mall because during my entire trip I had not yet had enough down time to do any souvenir shopping. The mall was nothing like a mall you would find in the US. Even though it was completely indoors, it looked like an outdoor market. Each level was full of winding halls with tiny stores jam-packed into them and men outside loudly advertising. We got to shop, grab a bite to eat at an Indian Subway (actually tasted much more fresh than the ones at home) and even grab a few drinks. Then, we headed back to the ship and changed for the night. A group of us went out to eat at a great Indian restaurant. At the restaurant, we met a group of great locals who took us out on the town and showed us all the fun places to go at night in Chennai. They taught us some Bollywood dances and Indian games, it was an amazing birthday!

Day 6: On the last day in India I decided to have a really relaxing easy day. Moriah and I got up early and had an authentic Indian street lunch. Then, we went to a salon to get henna and a lady taught us how to wrap a sari. We did some more shopping and took a bus tour of Chennai. All in all it was a really fun and relaxing last day. Not much exciting stuff to talk about.

My trip to India was one of the most busy weeks of my entire life. It was also a huge culture shock. The country was full of abject poverty, entire families stuck into one tiny apartment in the city or into one shack in the countryside. Everywhere you looked you found piles and mounds of trash, people tossing bags of trash out the windows of their cars on the freeway and no littering laws as far as I could tell. The way they dealt with the huge amount of pollution was simply to burn the largest piles of trash, emitting huge columns of black foul smoke into the air. One could literally taste the smog in the air in the cities, and by the end of the week I was literally blowing black gunk out of my nose. It was gross. Many locals in the city permanently wore SARs masks to protect themselves from the amount of pollution. The police were very obviously corrupt, locals paid them off for any kind of law violation. At the train station we saw groups of policemen beating the beggars with sticks to make them leave the station. I think my time in India has been the most eye opening on my trip so far. My birthday with the Indians was the a perfect ending to my trip too, because I got to talk to the youth about what I had seen and hear their ideas and hopes for the country. I left India on a very positive note, and felt optimistic for the people I had met and the country I have begun to understand.

1 comment:

  1. I love reading these, Rach! you're such a good writer!