Leaving Rishikesh after two months, I thought I could say I was at least a little familiar with Indian culture. What I didn’t realize was that India’s borders contain such a wide spectrum of culture that it is silly to say that you “know” India after visiting one city, or two, or even four in my case. I guess it’s similar in the U.S., in that each state has its own customs, culture, and people. However, I would venture to say that the differences between states in India is much more drastic.
My tour of India was the kind of experience where you exit having more questions than when you entered. The more places I visited and things I learned, the more I realized that I really didn’t know about India at all. That being said, I am going to write about some of my impressions as a foreigner visiting for the first time, but I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of understanding what makes India, India.
Sitting at the airport in Delhi, still with so many places in India that I want to explore someday, I feel like I am ready to move on to the next place (BKK, Phnom Penh). My dad, who commutes to Pune for work, put it this way: being in India as a North American is like eating spicy food. It’s different, intense, and exciting at first, albeit challenging. This mix makes it addicting, and soon you find yourself craving it. But, it is also taxing on the body, and sometimes you need a break. Unlike with spicy food, however, once you’re in India you can’t just take a break and eat bland for a few days. There were many a day when I just wanted, in vain of course, to “turn India off” so that I could get some real rest. When I finally got to my hotel (Radisson Blu) near the airport in Jaipur two days ago, I realized that I had forgotten what it felt like to get into bed without worrying about putting earplugs in so I wouldn’t get woken up by fellow hostel dwellers or firecrackers or dogs fighting or random people throwing up at 5 AM (Yog Peethers know what I’m talking about). I could get under the blanket without worrying about it getting too close to my skin. It was magical.
So, maybe I had become a bit used to the conditions in India… at least much more so than when I arrived in the taxi on my first day at RYP. I definitely feel like it will take a lot more to make me uncomfortable, mentally or physically, after this trip. But I don’t really think it’s because I’ve been hardened… just more awakened to the nature of discomfort: I am in control of what makes me uncomfortable, and I will survive it. This increase in mental adaptability is I think the most valuable thing I’ve gained from being in India.
What have I been doing this past week or so? Well, I left Rishikesh with two friends from RYP, Katelyn and Jessica, to visit three cities before leaving India: Amritsar in Punjab, Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and Jaipur in Rajasthan.
I had heard a lot about Amritsar, the capital city of Sikhism, before I came to India, and it was at the top of my tourism list. We took the overnight train from Haridwar (closest to Rishikesh), and it was not a good experience. The train platform was so dodgy at night, with the men staring longer and more intensely at you than usual. We had no idea what we were doing as far as getting on the train, and when we finally got in our cabin, we bolted the door and wouldn’t open it for anyone. Even the guy passing out blankets and pillows (we didn’t know they were provided). So we ended up freezing our asses off in this super loud, bumpy train car all night… It made me have a new respect for what the homeless must go through in the winter.
After 15 hrs on the train, we finally arrived in Amritsar. Cows aren’t considered holy in the Sikh religion, and it was very refreshing for the city not to be not full of cows! It’s unbelievable how much of a difference this made in terms of how it felt vs Delhi or Rishikesh. It seemed less chaotic and dirty without the cows ruling the roads, and you don’t have to worry about stepping in cow poop to everywhere you go!
Sikhism, above all, promotes equality and generosity for all people. In accordance to this belief, anyone can board and/or eat for free in any of their temples, and many backpackers take advantage of this cultural bonus while visiting Amritsar. We, however, opted out of staying in the temples in favor of Jugaadus’ Eco Hostel, which many say is the best hostel they have ever stayed in. I am now echoing this opinion: Jugaadus’ and it’s owner, Sanjay, are the shit. The hostel really felt like a home away from home, and the tours you can organize through Sanjay are cheap and well worth the time. We did the Golden Temple tour the first night we were in Amritsar, and this temple is one of the most beautiful, spiritual places I’ve been to in my life. I very much appreciate the core philosophies of Sikhism, and I felt very humbled while touring the temple.
One of the highlights for me was seeing (and eating at) the the huge community dining hall where around 70,000 people are fed a decent Ayurveda-friendly meal of veggie dishes, chapati (form of Indian bread), a milky dessert, and chai each day. The high capacity, high efficiency kitchen is beyond description… People come from all over India to volunteer to cook the food in the kitchen’s massive cauldrons and serve it, super speed style, to the lines of people waiting in the dining area. Watching the whole thing work was honestly the most amazing thing… I wonder how such a place, where the poor and rich sit together to eat as equals, supported solely by volunteer efforts and with very little security in place, continues to function so smoothly. Especially in a developing country like India, where so many are barely able to survive.
This is one thing I found especially interesting here: while people can seem extremely abrupt, brash, and careless 90% of the time, there is a palpable undercurrent of respect from the Indian people both between one another and for things that really matter (i.e. human suffering, health, compassion, justice, religion, family). Even strangers seem to interact with one another like family…. I witnessed this many times between the tuk-tuk drivers and random shop owners on the side of the road who would invite them in for chai like they had known each other for years. Maybe it is living in such a harsh environment, or maybe because they are united under a strong sense of Indian pride, but there just seems to be such a sense of camaraderie here, as well as a continuous awareness of what really matters. The sort of thing where, if you’re lacking a few rupees for toilet paper, a shopkeeper will say, “Come and pay me back tomorrow. It is the fact that you’re happy that matters, money doesn’t mean anything.”
The next day, we attended the recession ceremony at the India/Pakistan border. There is a small fee to get in (I think 250 IR?) and lots of security precautions, for obvious reasons. It was cool to be able to look over the gates from our seats in the stands and see Pakistan on the other side… Though it was so close, it was a different world, with signs in a different language, different music playing, and men and women sitting in separate areas in traditional Muslim dress. The event is promoted as a display of pride for each country, kind of like a “which side can cheer louder?!” competition at a football game. This was a little tense and confusing for me given the history of India/Pakistan relations, but people got really into it.
The ceremony opened with a running of the flags and a big women-only dance party on the Indian side to contemporary Indian music (so catchy, one of my favorite parts of Indian culture).
This was the most exciting part of the ceremony for me, even though I didn’t get down and dance (I wish I had!). The rest of it was pretty slow, especially since we were sitting pretty high up and were kind of confused as to what was going on. The ceremony sort of seemed like an attempt to make light of India/Pakistan relations, beginning with the border guards from each side opening their gates and displaying mock aggression towards each other in a series of march maneuvers. Then, the guards cross over to each other’s territory and shake hands, and their flags are lowered in unison. The whole concept behind the ceremony was really interesting, but the ceremony itself was pretty drawn out. I was happy to head back.
The next day, we took a food tour of the city that included many of the most famous dishes from local restaurants. Punjab cuisine seems to be most famous for butter, bread, and sweets, and this was definitely the theme of the food tour.I think that whatever I cleansed out during the Panchakarma was replaced that day, but it was worth it! The next day, we headed out to Agra to see the Taj.
So, Agra was the place I was the least excited to visit in India. By far. Like my expectations were really, really low.
I think that helped though, because I ended up having a much better time than expected! We only made Agra a part of the trip because, of course, we had to see the Taj Mahal. We had heard that the city itself was an awful place and so we only planned to spend one Thursday night there, get up for sunrise at the Taj on Friday, and leave the next day to Jaipur. But, as our travel agent neglected to inform us, the Taj is closed on Fridays, so we had to stay an extra night (the horror!). This ended up being a blessing in disguise though, because we got to see Agra fort, the Baby Taj Mahal, and the sunset from the moon garden across the river from the Taj. It was a really majestic city actually, when looked at in terms of the main attractions, because they were all built in opulence by the Islamic royalty of India and the architecture is really incredible.
The city of Agra besides that is kind of a dump, but we were able to have a really great day just seeing the attractions. We couldn’t find many budget places to stay with good reviews, but we chose Zostel (one of a chain of hostels in India) and had a pretty good stay.
People complained about the locals being really pushy about wanting you to buy things in Agra, but I did not think it was that bad. I was actually much more uncomfortable in Jaipur, and even Paris, when it came to that sort of thing. But, then again, not sure how my super low expectations played in to my perception of how bad/good things actually were. But, my advice with places like Agra that don’t have great reputations with tourists: go in with low expectations, and you’ll either be satisfied or pleasantly surprised!
We heard that seeing the Taj at sunrise was a must. It was great, but there were still tons of people there, and it was cold, and I don’t know how much we gained from getting up early to see it rather than just going whenever was most convenient for us. I think sunset would be just as, if not more, beautiful.
We missed our train due to our prolonged stay in Agra and decided to hire a car to take us into Jaipur. If you don’t want to pay plane price but have the budget for a car, this is definitely the way to travel. You can leave whenever you want right from your door, you can stop for food or toilet
whenever, and get to see the landscape up close. It’s usually much faster than the train, but some routes are pretty bad when it comes to traffic and road conditions (Delhi-Rishikesh!!!) and are better with the train, so do your research to snag the most comfortable trip for your dollar.
So, we arrived in Jaipur, The Pink City, from Agra after about 5 hours. The first thing I noticed was the amount of color (mostly pink!) around, and how civilized the city seemed compared to the other places I had been in India. It just felt more… Cosmopolitan. The bustling, traffic, and energy overall was less chaotic, less Indian, and more just like a middle-sized western city. But the city itself was so beautiful! As I mentioned, it is so colorful, and the old-style architecture still remains around the old city, making it feel historic and well lived-in. And the bazaars, overflowing with fresh fruits, veggies, spices, and colorful clothing, are breathtaking.
I stayed at Zostel Jaipur with Katelyn and Jessica for the first two nights and met some really incredible people. This hostel was another winner: delicious breakfast served in the morning, a bright, welcoming communal area, and comfy private rooms. I moved to the Radisson near the airport on my third day in Jaipur once Katelyn and Jessica moved on to Kochi, but luckily I met some great people at Zostel to keep me company after they left.
Our first night in Jaipur, we decided to go see a Bollywood film at the famous Graj Mandir cinema. The inside of the theatre was designed with lots of blue and pink swirls and was really quite grand. The movie we saw was named “Happy Ending”, and it was a strange mix of a romcom in Hindi and English set in Hollywood.
The movie was okay, but the funniest part was how animated the crowd was while watching. Every time a romance scene came on (there were quite a few, contrasting with the fairly strict conservatism & modesty I had seen in India so far), the theatre would erupt in “Ooooooohhhh!!!” and giggles. It was pretty entertaining.
The next day, we did a lot of strolling the bazaars while in Jaipur, and then decided to treat ourselves and get mani-pedis at a beauty salon across the street from the cinema. It included the best foot massage I’ve had with a pedicure, and costed about $8 total. So great.
Afterwards, we went to catch the light and sound show at Amer fort. This is what I was most excited for in Jaipur, but with my expectations high, I would say it was only okay.
The fort was much more enjoyable when I visited it the next day in the afternoon. It was built as a palace for a Raja using Islamic architecture, just like Agra fort. Agra fort was bigger and more grand, while Amer fort sported much more beautiful views of the hills of Rajasthan and had many more interior passageways open to the public. Definitely worth a visit.
That night, I came back to the Radisson, took a bath, and ordered buttered chicken (my first meat in India!) and chocolate cake. Then I slept for 10 hours. It was divine.
The next day, I met up with a friend I had made at Zostel, Stephen, and we hit a few sights together. The view from the monkey temple was nice, though the fact that it is overrun with monkeys, pigs, and cows was a little unnerving. Stephen wanted to visit the village area around Amer fort, and it turned out to be one of my favorite sights in Jaipur. There are little ruins of temples scattered throughout the area, and seeing the locale is always a nice break from the tourist regime. My favorite part was this little sunken area adorned with stairs and filled with water. Fun fact: it was a stop on the Amazing Race, which I thought was pretty cool! Went home that night to another fancy-filled night at the Radisson Blu, and grabbed an Uber the next morning to catch my flight out of India.
So that concludes the India portion of my journey! Sorry for the super long post, I just had such a multifaceted experience and I wanted to share/remember it all. And happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the States! Wish I could be eating turkey and pumpkin pie with you all. xx