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Here are some of my favorite photos from my trip to India. Click any photo to see the slideshow.
Most people are honest…
We landed in Delhi, went through immigration, got some rupees from the ATM, and headed for the taxi stand. I showed the dispatcher our railroad receipt and prepaid the fare. I showed the same information to the driver who showed it to the taxi chief. We were on our way. As we drove through Delhi in rush hour traffic (do they have rush hour or is it always that way?), I thought to myself, the driver could be taking me anywhere.
We arrived at the train station and it began to pour rain. We were surrounded by porters who were all talking at once. We were told this was New Delhi train station andour train left from Old Delhi train station. I went inside the station and pushed my way to the front and confirmed I was indeed at the wrong station.
Back outside we were again surrounded by talking porters and cab drivers. One cab driver said he would take us to Old Delhi for 1,300 rupees; we had just paid 250 rupees from the airport, a much farther distance. One man spoke English and said he would take us to buy Metro tickets and show us the way to the subway station which was on the other side of the railroad tracks. We followed him into a building with a big sign, Department of Tourism. It felt good to get out of the rain. Someone at a computer terminal said, Hi, asked us where we were from and where we wanted to go. He began to advise us that we really wanted a tourist package for the four main Himalayan Hindu Temples, the Char Dham.
He asked if he could look at our railroad tickets. He scruitinized the computer screen for sometime and toggled the keyboard. “I am sorry to tell you that your train has been delayed 12 hours. Your best alternative is to get a refund and instead buy a car-train ticket. Dawn saw through the scam immediately. I said we would go the correct station now, check into a hotel near there and rest for the night and take the delayed train in the morning. We thanked them and left.
I returned to the train station, pushed my way to the head of the line and asked the attendant to the best of his knowledge did he think the train was delayed. He said, No, it should not be. Back into the rain and throng of porters and cab drivers, I said loudly that I would pay 60 rupees to get to Old Delhi station. Everyone was aghast. Finally, we settled on 180 rupees.
Our driver drove like a madman. We arrived on time, I gave him 200 rupees and he beamed with delight and raised his hands in prayer and said, Namaste. The conductor said our train was on time. We found the passenger list and our names and ages were listed correctly.
We had two berths, a little sink, clean bedding and towels, a door that closed, air conditioning and a fan. We awoke in the moning a few stations before Haridwar.
We arrived by train about 7 a.m. and were surrounded again by porters, rickshaw drivers and taxi drivers. We walked across the street and had some chai and pastries. We checked into a hotel on the Ganges. From our balcony, we could survey a quarter-mile section of river including the sacred Ghat, Har-Ki-Pauri. There were bathers and swimmers, saddhus in orange robes, street vendors with blankets on the ground and middle-class families. There were sacred cows, sacred cows eating garbage and sacred cow manure.
The entire district prohibited automobiles and trucks ( but sadly not motorcycles). Most people walked or used bicycle rickshaws (pedicabs). We used a rickshaw to move our luggage. Our balcony had a warning about monkeys. At the end of the day, about forty monkeys would walk by.
Evening Ceremony (Ganga Arti) — there is a religious ceremony every evening. We cheked our shoes and entered the holy area. A Hindu priest helped us purchase a little boat made of palm leaves and filled with flower petals. He said prayers for us and our families. We splashed Ganges River water on our foreheads. He lit candles in the little boat and we sent it off into the current. We gave him a donation and sat down to watch the area fill with people.
There were cheers, speakers and uniformed men accepting donations and giving receipts. Many men dressed in white and had their foreheads painted yellow with a red smudge in the center. At dusk, there were gongs, cymbals and bells clanging and clashing loudly. People chanted. A small chair was carried beside the river and lit up with electrical lights. Ancient temples were illuminated. Many torches were lit. The clanging and chanting got louder. Many small boats were floating down the Ganges with tiny lit wicks. The singing slowed, the crowd grew quiet and dispersed.
Bazaar — behind our hotel were narrow alleys that contained a marketplace or bazaar. The goods were targeted toward Indian tourists and included jewelry, clothing and linen, sourvenirs, books and fruit.
A Holy City — no alchol or eating of meat is allowed. People have been coming here for thousands of years. On certain occasions, over 1 million people converge here.
Few Westerners — during three days, we saw four Westerners.
Chief Medical Officer — every few hours, a squad of uniformed officers went through the streets to clear the crowd. They carry bamboo batons. People roll up their mats and scurry out of the way. One officer stopped and introduced himself. He did not speak English, but we carried on a conversation anyway. He showed us his identification, Chief Medical Officer. I wished him well and said I thought he had a very difficult job.
Hot — it is hot and humid beone anything I’ve eperienced before. There are limited sanitary facilities. Thousands of people are bathing in the river. A very large population of street people live on both banks of the river. The beggars have significant deformities, leprosy and missing limbs. Although people are always sweeping and hauling away garbage, it feels dirty to me, as though germs are everywhere and the outbeak of disease is imminent.
Middle Class — most of the people in Hardiwar appeared to be middle class tourists from other parts of India. They are on religious pilgimages. They are well-dressed and have their families with them. We took gondola rides up to the two temples on the surrounding hills (Chandi Devi Temple and Mansa Devi Temple). While standing on line for the gondolas, we met several families. Usually an adolescent would ask us in English, “Where are you from?” Eventually, we would meet everyone in the family which usually included three generations. This felt comfortable and nomal.
Foreign — after traveling in South America, China, Tibet and Nepal, Haridwar felt most foreign to me. I have no frame of reference for the people, language, customs and rituals. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
We hired a driver to take us from Haridwar to Uttarkashi. We stayed 5 kilometers outside of town at the Shakkir Nature Preserve. “Preserve” is overstated, but they have considerable waterfront on the Ganges in a pretty mountain setting. We stayed in huts (or fixed tents) with attached baths. Meals are included. It’s all very civililzed. In late afternoon, they serve tea and biscuits in the shade beside the tent. We are addressed as “sir” and “madam.”
In the morning, women with baskets climb the mountain across from our lodging. Men with mules go into the riverbed and sledge hammer stones apart for construction material. Some shepherds drive their flocks to higher ground. A couple of young women gather watercress where a brook enters Mother Ganga.
I read “Touching My Father’s Soul” by Jamling Tenzing Norgay. The son of Tenzing Norgay tells how his father became the first man to climb Everest with Sir Edmund Hilary. He also tells his own story of his relationship with the mountain. Many of the places he writes about are places I have just visited. Many of his comments about Tibetan or Sherpa life correspond to what I observed. It’s an interesting book that weaves serveral stories and themes together. When I was finished reading it, I gave it to a young climber from the Nehru Mountaineering Institute. He was happy to receive my gift.
Gangotri, Ganges headwaters
We hired a driver to take us from Uttarkashi to Gangotri, an elevation gain of about 2,000 meters in 98 kilometers. Gangotri is in the upper reahes of the Ganges Valley 14 kilometers from the headwaters. I hiked along the Ganges–the mountains and cliffs are spectacular here. The air is crisp and cool. The peaks are rocky and jagged. Most of the trees are evergreen. It reminds me of Nederlands or Georgetown in Colorado. Along the way, I spied “baba homes,” caves where ascetics live. The river is a brackish green from the glacier runoff.
The ancient temple is a destination for religious tourism. The Char Dam includes this site plus Yaminotri, Kedernath and Badrinath. Everyday, thousands of tourists show up here. There is no parking available so buses, taxis and cars line the road for 2 kilometers. It’s only a one-lane road, so the last few kilimeters take hours.
About 2 p.m. in the afternoon, I saw a mob scene at the temple. Hundreds of pilgrims were trying to push their way inside. There is one door with a single line in and a single line out. But the crowd was blocking people from getting out. They broke down a barricade. One man was yelling at the top of his lungs. Uniformed guards with bamboo batons were trying to remove him, but he broke free and forced his way into the temple. I wonder what kind of spiritual encounter people could have after all the pushing and shoving. I was walking in the lane afterwards and got pushed and shouldered by several men leaving the temple.
As a Westerner, I am targeted by people that want my money. The vast majority of people saying hello or approaching me want me to buy a service or an item–or simply give them money. It happens so frequently and so brazenly that I find myself avoiding looking at people or answering their hellos. As I am walking, people step right in front of me and thrust some article of merchandise in my face. People pull at my sleeve and hold on to my elbow. One young beggar sat on my foot.
I do meet people who are interested in me as a tourist and foreigner; they want to talk or take my photo. But they are in the minority. I find myself with my defenses up and initially reluctant to talk with anyone.
I suppose it’s not so onerous and poor people are simply trying to make a living. But it’s so in my face. The frequency and intensity are tiresome. In an hour’s walk it might happen 10 – 15 times. In certain spots, it can happen 10 – 15 times in ten minutes. I met two Brits. They were keeping score. After three weeks, they were looking for encounter #4, meaning someone would say Hello to them and have an interest in them personally rather than trying to sell or be something.
Philosophically, I have commited to giving to charitable institutions in each country I visited, but not giving to beggars, especially beggars using their children as a means to gain funds.
We hired a driver and Jeep in Gangotri to take us to Rishikesh. When we awoke in the morning in Gangotri, we crawled out of our sleeping bags and put on our fleeces and down sweaters. It had snowed on the peaks. It was a long day even though we didn’t stop for meals. We left at 7 a.m. and arrived at 8 p.m.. By mid-day, we were perspring in our T-shirts.
Rishikesh is a holy city on the Ganges River. When the Beatles went to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi way back in the last century, this is where they stayed.
Although it’s not as large or busy as Haridwar, many Indian tourists come here to visit the temples and river and to assemble for additional tours into the Himalayas. There are two famous pedestrian suspension bridges here, Lakshman Jhula and Shivanand Jhula. The Photographers’ Association stays busy taking photos at Lakshman Jhula. A large sign says you need a permit from the Association to take photos. You can take rafts down the Ganges for whitewater thrills.
The main indusry seems to be yoga education for Westerners. A dozen women were taking a class at our hotel. Western male students tend to dress all in white and have beards and dreadlocks. Bookstores have comprehensive libraries with ancient texts to contemporary “how to” and inspirational works. Signs tout techniques; banners advertise swamis. Our local map lists about thirty ashrams. A number of people appear to have “gone native” and settled here to unwind, absorb the local culture and pursue enlightenment. Many Indian babas line the streets and can be seen bathing in the Ganges. I’m not sure of local protocol, but too many of the babas are begging for five and ten rupees for chai. More than a few are smoking and selling hashish.
We took a long and bumpy seven-hour bus ride from Rishikesh to Delhi. And then took a short, overpriced taxi ride to our hotel. In our travels, we had given a ride to a man with a propane cylinder. He works at a nice hotel in Delhi. We are staying at his hotel. Mr. Govind is courteous and introduced us to his friends. We took a taxi tour of Delhi at his suggestoin and went out to dinner with him and a friend.
Today the temperature was 44 degrees Celsius or about 115 degrees Fahrenheit. I try to remember the morning we hiked in the snow and wind to Everest Base Camp, but I am still hot and sweaty. I wanted to visit Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, but they require all shoes and socks be removed. The bare soles of my feet fried on the solar-heated stone and I retreated. The soles of my feet are still burned.
The taxi tour was a good suggestion; the taxi was air-conditioned. We spent a lot of time riding around and looking without stopping. The driver took us to an air-conditioned shoppers’ emporium. Later he asked us to tuck our purchases into our knapsacks, hide our shopping bags and tell the hotel that we were looking, but not shopping. I guess he gets a commission on our purchases and did not want to share it with the hotel.
We continue to meet people. At the Red Fort, one family of nine people came up to us one by one, shook our hands and said, Hello. A serviceman with a rifle interpreted for us. They were from Rajistan. We are from America. they spoke no English. We spoke no Hindi. After that was established, each one came back up to us, shook our hands one by one and said, Hello. We rode a shared taxi with eight women in colored saris . They laughed and giggled about us the whole way. When we got off, they all waved, cheered and wished us well in Hindi.
We visited the samadhi of Gandhi and spent an afternoon at the National Museum. India has many treasures from a long cultural tradition.
Delhi Taxi Drivers
Most Delhi taxi drivers are hard-working, do their job, take you to your destination, charge a fair rate and appreciate a tip. Some are crooks. One taxi driver agreed to take us to our hotel for 200 Rs. When we got to the hotel, he demanded 300 Rs. The reason was, I had held up the hotel card and asked how much to go to New Delhi, which was the location listed on the card. But he gave the name of the neighborhood and said it wasn’t New Delhi.
One driver who left us a 15 minute drive from our hotel and told us it was around the corner. Originally, he said we could pay him what we liked, but instead demanded 500 Rs. A ride to the airport is less than that. I gave him 200 Rs and wound up hiring another taxi to take us to our hotel for another 50 Rs (plus a 10 Rs tip).
In the future, I plan to use the hotel for all cab bookings. The day of our taxi tour, the driver tooks us to various destinations and waited for us to return. When we went to dinner, the driver waited for us as well. It is expensive, but not much more (1000 Rs for 8 hour day). It is safer, less aggravating, and gets us back to our hotel. Because the hotel books the driver, a complaint from us would result in the driver losing fares. When a cab driver drops us in the middle of nowhere or demands an outrageous fare, we have no recourse. If a policeman is called, they will speak in Hindi and and we won’t even be able to talk about distances, neighborhoods or agreements.
on leaving India
I am glad I went to India to see then Indian Himalayas, visit places off the typical tourist track, witness Hindu religious ceremonies and meet genuinely friendly people.
I found India more difficult than I expected. The language barrier is formidible; people speak Hindi, not English. People who speak English are typically in the tourism business meaning they want to sell goods or services. Transportation is difficult. At least in Uttar Prakesh, the roads are rough and travel is slow. Where trains are available, they are often fully booked. I wanted a foreign, different experience; I got it. After my challenging overland tour of China, a couple of weeks at Thailand’s beaches would have been welcome.
When I return to India, I plan to choose either city or mountains, not both. For mountains, I would book with a trekking organization in advance and let them handle all the logistics of transporation to remote locations (and probably food and tents as well). I would begin the trek right away while I am still fresh. For a city tour, I would either join a tour group or plan to stay at better hotels and have them make local arrangements. I would return in Dcember, January or February (when it’s not 44 degrees Celsius).
Perhaps I had some bad luck, but I was constantly subjected to a unwanted and relentless solicitations that detracted from enjoying the people and geography. Perhaps I am bumping into cultural stereotypes. A middle-class American couple is not expected to take care of their luggage or walk down the alleys of commerical neighborhoods. India still has an active, caste system. I’m not sure where I fit in the hierarchy but traveling upper class is the clear expectation. For example, at the museum we were courteously redirected from the canteen to the VIP dining room. I’m not a twenty-something backpacker, but I don’t always need a waiter to serve me a soft drink.
I am used to traveling and purchasing lodging, transporation and food myself. In India, I probably also need the services of a guide, translator or advisor. I say this reluctantly because I like doing things myself, acting independently, and traveling without a set itinerary.
Re-entry, the comforts of home
Living at home is easy:
+ there are water fountains in the airport AND I can drink out of them
+ I don’t feel compelled to lather my hands in antiseptic prior to eating
+ no one has thrust anything in my face this morning and asked me to buy it
+ the coffee tastes good
+ everything seems clean
+ I don’t need to take my flashlight to dinner in preparation for the inevitable power black outs
+ toilet paper is soft and I can flush it down the toilet; there are toilets I can sit on
+ no one has stepped immediately in front of me as I was walking
+ no one has honked at me for being on the street. A driver stopped and waved for me to cross the street first.
+ I can wear shorts without fear of contracting malaria from mosquitoes
+ I can eat fresh fruit and vegetables that have not been peeled
+ I can choose from a wardrobe of clothes and shoes
+ I can shower without washing the day’s underwear, socks and T-shirt
Himalaya Top 10
I am somewhere off the coast of Greenland as I write this. Our B-777 left Delhi about midnight; it’s now 11:30 a.m. Delhi time. We have about 2 1/2 hours more flying time to Newark. I arrive in Charleston about 30 hours after leaving Delhi. It was a great trip; the Top Ten are:
Everest Base Camp in Tibet
homestay with Tibetan nomads
pilgrim stempede in Jokhang Temple
Tianamen Square and Beijing