Category: India

India

My next stop around the world found me in Delhi, India.  India was the biggest cultural shock that I’ve ever experienced in my life.  Ever.  Including Korea, which took me months to really adjust to.  I’m not quite sure where to begin.  But as countless wise men have undoubtedly said over the ages, beginning at the beginning is probably the best course of action, so I will start there, shall I?I had reserved a place at a hostel in India in advance.  I had also given them my flight information (three times!), and they were supposed to come pick me up at the airport upon my arrival.  My flight got in around 8 in the evening, so it should have been a nice, easy night.  But unfortunately, life had other plans.  What actually happened was this: I arrived on time, exited the airport….and found no one waiting for me.  I waited for a while, with no luck.  If being stranded in the New Delhi airport wasn’t bad enough, I also couldn’t call my hostel to see where they were – there were no pay phones in the entire airport.  But even if there were, I wouldn’t have been able to use them, because I didn’t have any money.  I had brought a lot of Korean won with me to exchange on my travels into the local currency; however, the currency exchange counter wouldn’t take won, so I was left with a lot of useless money and no money that I actually could use.  So I asked a random stranger if I could use her phone to call my hostel, and she begrudgingly said yes.  Well, the hostel told me to just take a taxi and then they would reimburse me.  Which did me no good because I had no money.  However, I found a small police station and asked them for help, and they helped me find a cab driver who was willing to take dollars, of which I had a few tucked into my passport, just in case.

So I was finally on my way!  The drive lasted about 20 minutes.  We got about a block away….and then found out that the road had been closed, in preparation for Republic day celebrations that would be held the next day.  So I borrow my taxi driver’s phone to call the hostel again (I have GOT to get an international phone!!).  The guy at the hostel refused to meet me, but rather told me to go to a travel agency and find somewhere else.  Needless to say, I wrote a biting review of their establishment once I returned to Korea. I was soooo frustrated.  When I got to the travel agency, I found that because of the national holiday the next day, all of the cheap hotels were already booked.  At this point it was nearing 11:00 pm, so I finally told my taxi driver to just take me to the closest place that had an open room.  This ended up being about 10 times the price that I had originally anticipated spending…but I was so tired, I chalked it off as a learning experience, locked my door and went to bed.  It certainly wasn’t the welcome to India that I was hoping for, but even in the midst of all of that, there were bright spots.  The policeman, taxi driver, and travel agency worker were all super nice and helpful, and made me feel much more at ease.  They kept calling me m’ame, which I found amusing at first, but eventually came to realize that it’s just how they show respect to foreigners.

I must admit though, I was glad when a new day dawned.  I woke up singing “Journey to the past,” from Fox Animation’s Anastasia….”people always say life is full of choices, no one ever mentions fear.”  Hurrah for Fox, giving inspirational songs for people all over the world! 🙂  I had bought a trip with a travel agency so I wouldn’t be completely alone the entire time, so I headed out bright and early to the meeting point.  A bit too early, actually…the cafe wasn’t open yet, and so I had to wait outside for nearly an hour.  The leering stares of the men who also happened to be on the street at that time made the first time in my life, in all of my travels, that I have ever been truly honestly frightened.  It was a sensation that I experienced on multiple occasions over the course of my week in India.  At the risk of inundating you with my writings, I wrote a separate article reflecting on some of the thoughts that were going through my head when that was happening.  If you want to read it, just follow this link.

But anyway, at last the group met up – it was myself, our tour guide, and 4 Germans, and we started our tour of India.  We took a walk through old Delhi, dodging the taxi and motorcycle drivers that squeezed through the tiny alley streets with reckless abandon for pedestrian safety, walking past savory street-side food vendors and stalls stuffed to bursting with knick-knacks and tourist merchandise, and ducking under the tangled and frayed electrical wires that hung from the crowded buildings in unstable masses.  That afternoon, we headed to Agra, for the next leg of our journey.  The swirling mass of humanity seemed to multiply, if possible, once we got on the road.  Every moment we were stopped, people swarmed the car, trying to sell me something, asking for tips for simple tasks, or simply begging for money.  The worst was when we stopped for lunch.  I was the only patron in the entire restaurant, so I was naturally swarmed there too, but this time I had no car to protect me.  It was rather overwhelming, especially since many of the Indians didn’t seem to have a proper filter as to what were appropriate topics to talk to a stranger about and what weren’t.  I didn’t get to my hotel until late evening, and I promptly went to bed.

The oldest mosque in India
The streets of Old Delhi
Lunch with my German friends!!
Yummyyyyy
A moqsue that offered free lunch to everyone.  Since they couldn’t pay for it, they volunteered their time to help make it.  Pretty cool….
My Delhi tour guide, Hirdesh….super sweet girl
The lotus palace, seen from the car on the way to Agra
Typical Indian traffic

The next day was The Day!  Really the only reason (or at least the main reason) I wanted to go to India was because I wanted to see the Taj Mahal.  And let me tell you what, it certainly didn’t disappoint.  The Taj is beautiful from a distance…but once I got up close, once I actually touched it….it sent a thrill up my and down my entire spine.  The Taj Mahal has 43 million individual gems in it, the carved panels inside took 2 men approximately 8 months to make – for each panel, and it took approximately 20,000 workers 22 years of intricate, detailed work to complete the entire building.  And all for the love of a woman.  It is such a timeless symbol of love and dedication – so much more so, I think, than Romeo and Juliet or Anthony and Cleopatra – that it was literally breathtaking to behold.  Sure gives all of the men nowadays some big shoes to fill :).

The main gate to the Taj Mahal
The “classic” photo of the Tj Mahal
The entire place was sooooo detailed

I spent the afternoon with Mehran, my tour guide – the Germans had opted to get a massage.  Mehran took me to some of his favorite sites in the city – the Agra fort, another tomb, the shop of some gem inlayers who use the same techniques as were used in the Taj Mahal, and the moon gardens, which lie across the river from the Taj.  The Germans actually told him to go spend time with me, and then told him you’re welcome for giving him the opportunity to spend more time with me, which I found highly amusing :D.  He was a good guide and a good friend, however, and I enjoyed the afternoon immensely.  He was also a rather good storyteller, and I thoroughly enjoyed the tales he told me about his escapades in college, such as when he cried “snakes” on a crowded metro just so that people would run away and give him more space :D.

The Agra fort
Another tomb….not nearly as impressive as the Taj Mahal, but far more peaceful and quiet
The gem-inlayers of Agra
Me ‘n Mehran 🙂

Day three, Mehran took me to Fatephur Sikri, a deserted fort about 45 minutes outside of Agra.  There I said goodbye to him, and headed to Jaipur.  Jaipur was my least favorite city in India.  The guide was cold and unfriendly, and the repeated warnings I got from locals about the danger of a woman being alone in the city made me nervous about even leaving my hotel room.  Although I did get to see an Indian wedding at my hotel, which was really cool.  I also went to a ton of famous temples and shrines and forts that I honestly don’t remember much about – they all seemed to run together after a while.  But I did get to ride an elephant!!  That part I remember quite clearly.  Those great big lumbering beasts do not make for the smoothest ride, but it was certainly fun!  I can’t imagine crossing countries on one, though!!!  I also made a point to go to a Bollywood movie in the evening.  It didn’t disappoint – the sumptuous costumes, intricate dance scenes, exaggerated fight scenes, overdramatized acting, and intermission so that people could go buy food midway through to sustain themselves through the excessive length – it was everything and more that I was expecting to see in a Bollywood film :).

An Indian wedding
The ladies’ quarters of Fatephur Sikri
Parcheesi – Indian style.  The pieces were concubines, and the winner got to spend a night with the emperor…
Yay for elephant rides!!!
The wind palace for the ladies of the palace – they could see but not be seen
The water palace
The Pink City
The peacock gate to the royal palace
The largest sundial in the world
The amber fort in Jaipur
My reflection in the hall of mirrors in the amber fort
The peacock restaurant!!

My last day in Delhi I went to a saree shop.  I was only supposed to look and play dress up, but I found one that I absolutely loved, and so I allowed myself a splurge.  I have no idea where I’ll wear it, but it’s beautiful, and I love it :).  On the drive back to Delhi, my driver decided to pick up some random people on the side of the road and take them with us for a few hundred kilometers.  This is very common in India, but I found it quite awkward, and I must admit that I was glad when we parted ways.  My driver also decided to randomly stop at his home before he dropped me off.  That was also awkward – we had tea, and just sat, not talking, for about an hour.  I asked why were there, and I was told “to kill time.”  But whatevs…when in Rome…  But honestly, even though it was awkward, I actually kind of enjoyed it.  I got a glimpse, however small, of the “real India,” which is what I always prefer to see in any country that I go to.  It was nice to see a slice of what really happens in India, away from the tourist centers.

Where they made the dyes for the sarees

So I checked into another hotel in Delhi (courtesy of my wonderful friend Mehran, who booked it for me, since I had originally planned on staying at the hostel that stiffed me), spent the night there, and then caught a taxi to the airport the next day.  I had quite a few takeaways from my stay in India.  The first one, is how very very blessed I am.  I was surrounded everyday by stark, raging poverty and pain.  And I couldn’t get over the fact that I am so very very blessed to even own a passport, to live in a country where I am financially able and also allowed to travel basically anywhere in the world that I please.  Also, a smile goes a long way.  As a solo traveler, there were lots of times when I really needed help, and I can’t tell you how much more willing people were to help me when I smiled and was nice to them.  They even said as much.  Another takeaway: I realized just how much I dislike head scarves.  Actually, head scarves aren’t bad…but I realized that the more of face is covered, the more I dislike it.  It dehumanizes the wearer.  On multiple occasions, I found myself wondering, “what happens if one of these women gets hurt in the street and needs help?  Her husband wouldn’t know it was her to help her, even if he was staring right at her.”  As the week wore on, I found myself growing progressively more and more impatient with people who homogenized me as a “rich foreigner,” and were unable or unwilling to see me as what I was – a person.  But I realized that a full head scarf does the exact same thing.  I know there are religious, cultural, and familial reasons for wearing them, so please don’t jump down my throat….I’m just saying that from my perspective, they seemed to dehumanize the women who wore them a bit.  They became just a pair of eyes, and by the end of the week I had grown to dislike full head coverings just as much as I disliked being swarmed by beggars every time I walked outside.  But overall, India was a great experience – if nothing else, a massive learning experience – and I’m very glad to have gotten the opportunity to go.  Oh, and one last takeaway….know the currency exchange rate before you go!  And make sure you have money!  It will save you a whole bunch of headache and trouble :).