Our flight to Zagreb, Croatia is in the early morning on Wednesday. We are about to wrap up more or less a whole month in India, and I am feeling ambivalent about it. There were plenty of good things about this country, and I’m grateful for the experience of it all. At the same time, I want to get off my chest two very troubling experiences that I keep thinking about.
One of the things that frustrated me the most here was something that I had already mentioned about Thailand. There, Steve and I both felt relegated to the realm of the tourist, instructed firmly to follow the route that was laid out as though at Disneyland. Here, it is more the role of the tourist that I cannot escape. Walking down the street in both Delhi and Amritsar, I was constantly targeted and invited to walk into a shop, take a taxi, or buy something. It got to the point where I was constantly on the verge of yelling “DO I LOOK I LIKE I NEED A TAXI?!” and Steve started cultivating a stupid or sad look so no one would approach him. There were so few places we could go where people would just let us be. The expectation of personal space or privacy itself was a joke, unless we were locked inside our hotel room. People constantly offered us things or services to buy, not because we actually needed it or could use it, but because we were walking ATMs. I have never felt so dehumanized in my life. A little of it can be brushed off, but I fully admit that I take things too personally, and by the time we left northern India, I was entirely drained.
This is the second post to wrap up our beautiful backwaters trip in Kerala, with a few more details about our trip and what we learned from the entire experience.
The Morning After
The next morning, we got up fresh and early. I had set an alarm for 6:30 am, as I didn’t want to miss an iota of the rising sun. Kerala is beautiful too in the morning, a morning haze covering the fields and hanging over the canals before the sun burnt it off. We enjoyed the quiet, watching fishermen who were wrapping up their night labors, paddle home with fish in their baskets. By a morning cup of tea, I made a few more watercolors, including one that I’m very proud of, featuring the sunrise. I had so much fun doing this landscape art and looking at them closely. They’re far from perfect, but I have a sense of accomplishment in that when I look at them again, I feel as though I am out there on the water again.
Written on a houseboat Alleppey, Backwaters of Kerala Evening, Friday, March 21
Close your eyes. This is the sound of summer in your ears. Different insects chirping and singing their song. Vague voices raised far off, traveling and echoing across the water. Wild dogs yip and howl. The rhythmic thunk of a paddle meeting the water. The faint and indecipherable rustle of the breeze over your ears. The night is quiet on the backwaters of Kerala.
We moored a scant hour before sunset and watched the sun, a glowering fireball, set on the horizon. In this part of the backwaters, vast squares and trapezoids of rice paddy fields lie divided by narrow walls and spacious freshwater canals. The fields are slightly lower than the canals and can be flooded by opening gates. Along the confluence of two narrow canal walls are a few rectangular houses clustered together. When we moored, a villager came by unspooling an armful of electrical cords to hook up our houseboat. Accompanied by two of the enthusiastic young dogs (one who took up his post outside our houseboat, thumping the window with his good natured tail), we took a brief walk along the canal walls, making the acquaintance of a rooster hidden in a tree and two cows, or more specifically, water buffalo (with curved horns) who stared unblinkingly at us, as though daring us to come closer. One of the villagers hailed us, and upon finding out where we were from, excitedly told us his daughter was in Atlanta, GA and that a cousin of his operated a boat in Chicago on Lake Michigan. A very small world, indeed.
Since we arrived in Kochi by the train last week, I have found it very easy to lose track of the days. We are here for nearly two weeks in Kerala, which is an exquisitely relaxing place, I am happy to report. Last Thursday, we stumbled off the train and took a tuk-tuk ride to our homestay (an Indian B&B) in Fort Kochi, on the tip of the island where it meets the Indian Ocean. Our room has a small balcony on one side, and on the other, a small sunny verandah that holds a few tables and shared as a communal breakfast space.
From where we like to sit, I can see the flower pots on the edge of the verandah, a few rooftops next door, lines of laundry, the green tops of coconut trees and a hazy blue sky. Our second day here, I sat out in the heat to do a brief watercolor of it, which I’m going to pass on making public for now. Truthfully, my photography skills still far exceed whatever I can do on paper, but it’s relaxing to work on mixing the right shade of green and drawing miniature palm leaves. Kerala is a jungle-like environment. A few nights ago, we shared drinks and a long conversation about India on the balcony. As we talked, we saw and heard bats flapping from palm to palm. There is a strange birdcall sometimes, like a whooperwill (or maybe just what I think a whooperwill sounds like). Steve scoffed and said it was fake at first – that’s how weird it sounded to us. And there are crows all over the place too.
Written largely on the Kerala Express (12626)
Departed from New Delhi Railway Station, New Delhi, Rajasthan
Headed to Ernakulum Junction (South), Kochi, Kerala
11:30 am, Tuesday, March 11
We are on our way! Our train just pulled out of New Delhi a few minutes ago, and we are picking up speed. My first impressions of the 2-tier AC class so far — it is mostly neat and clean, but not as fancy as Amtrak. The hard sleeper class in China is very similar. Across from us is a nice-seeming but quiet gentleman. He speaks a little English, but either we have trouble with his questions or he has trouble processing our reply. There seem to be no other foreign tourists on our car, but I have glimpsed a few monks in their orange garb. There are a few curious kids also shyly peering at us too.
Steve and I are both getting over a bad cold, and he has had some disagreements with Indian food, so he is less enthusiastic about this trip than I am. The conductor just came by to check our IDs, and our neighbor had to peel his sweater vest halfway up his chest and partially unbutton his shirt to extract his wallet which was on a chain. It reminds me of this underwear that my mother once showed me from China, which had a small zip pocket for cash in the front. Basically, all Asians are paranoid about theft and pickpockets, but probably for good reason. Men have come by hawking lunch, but I feel adequately prepared, with two liters of water, two footlong Subway sandwiches (oh the fresh veggies), chips, and two rolls of TP. Let’s hope this is enough.
We braved the north of India for nearly a week to visit the holy city of Amritsar and to see its two great sights: the Golden Temple, center of the Sikh religion, and the Indian-Pakistani border at Wagah, which holds a much-vaunted closing ceremony. One of those sights we got to enjoy very much, as we visited the Golden Temple the second night we arrived.
We stayed in a hotel barely minutes away from the Golden Temple. As soon as we were headed inside, I felt the atmosphere change. Though people surrounded us, their glances were more frank and curious than probing and assessing, and no one approached us to ask if we wanted to buy something or if we needed a taxi. Wonders of all wonders! Here, few were curious visitors like us — many more were believers and true Sikhs. Sikhism dictates that inside the temple, all must go barefeet and with their heads covered. (Hence the turban you’ve probably seen Sikh men wear.) At the entrance, we approached the shoe storage center to hand them our shoes and receive a silvery token in return, carved with elaborate numbers. Steve also stopped at a bin filled with squares of orange cloth and bandannas, and fished out one to wrap around his head. He looked a little like a pirate!
India has officially given us a lot to cope with. Steve came down with some sort of head cold in addition to food poisoning, and now I’ve caught his cold too. We’re both curled up in the hotel, hacking and coughing and drinking as much water as we can.
Last night, we made a trip out for Domino’s Pizza (which oddly has tables and chairs here, instead of simply being a take-out joint) and tonight, sandwiches at Subway. Indian food is tasty, but all that dal makhani and chana masala is all cooked to high heaven, no minerals and vitamins left to speak of! It was such a relief to have raw vegetables. I also bought some oranges and bananas, and we’re going to try to recuperate as best as we can. Meanwhile, I can’t help but think that it’s going to be much better when we leave northern India, and possibly the entire country.
We’ve only been able to make a fleeting nighttime visit to the Golden Temple (which was quite nice) and not yet to the Pakistani border closing ceremony at Wagah, but maybe tomorrow or the day after when we feel better. Here, have a video about driving in Agra. Bonus: pig in the road!
Also, YouTube, don’t make me laugh. Of course this video is shaky.
Yesterday, we made an absurd five-hour journey, a calculated retreat from the mass of humanity that was Delhi, in hopes of finding a slightly better environment. What we found rather was India’s penchant for bureaucracy, lies, and general inefficiency. I want to write about it because I feel like it was so typically India, but it must be noted that nothing catastrophic happened: we didn’t lose our luggage or passports, get ripped off for a large amount of money, or cry and curse at the officials. It was simply just travel in India: death by a thousand micro-aggressions.
After checking out of our hostel, we walked through the dusty halls and elevated walkways of the New Delhi Railway Station, and upon arriving at the Airport Express Link, requested two tokens for the airport. The man behind the counter asked us where we were going (Amritsar) and the name of our airline (SpiceJet, a low-budget domestic airline), and directed us to get off a stop earlier, at Delhi Aerocity, instead of the Airport station for our domestic flight. The international terminal we arrived in initially led directly into the Airport station, so when we emerged from the Delhi Aerocity stop, we were dismayed to find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, bound by empty stretches of roads on each side. Most passengers from our ride were getting on a shuttle bus for 30 rupees each ($0.50 USD), and it seemed like our only option, but we were reluctant. In India, you’re never sure if you’re being led in the correct (and cheap or free) direction or if you’re being taken for a ride. However, there were positive signs, since the cost was relatively low and other Indians were on board, so we gave in, half-expecting that we might be taken to the wrong terminal and have to get on another shuttle. Here, nothing’s simple.
Love inspires grand monuments and grand statements. Here, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore was waxing poetic about the beauty of the Taj Mahal. I’ve read this quote countless times in guidebooks and introductions, and you know, that’s quite a statement. When we planned to visit India, I knew that we needed to go see the Taj. Not quite because I was dying to make the trip to Agra, but more because I knew we would regret visiting India and not seeing it in person.
The Preparation Knowing it would be a difficult trip to plan, we made no other plans for our five days in Delhi. After some online research, I was overwhelmed by the logistics of taking a train to Agra and transportation from there to each of the sights in the city, so I suggested to Steve we try a tour group. We checked out a few places on the Main Bazaar that advertised day-trips to Agra. One place suggested a bus trip (leaving at 6 am, coming back at 11:30 pm) for 500 rupees a person, which sounded a little too cheap to be good (less than $10 USD per person, really?).
We also stopped by the travel desk at our hotel to inquire, and they suggested we hire their car and driver to visit three different sights in Agra, which would be more of a 12-hour journey for approximately 6000 rupees ($100 USD). We went back to do more research, but barely an hour later, the travel desk called our room to let us know there were two other travelers also hoping to go to the Taj tomorrow, so the price was just halved the price to 1500 rupees per person. After a hurried conference, Steve and I decided to go along with this unexpected opportunity.
A sudden, unseasonal downpour ended our first full day in Delhi before it even got started.
Wearing raincoats and hoisting our green umbrella, we had barely gotten two hundred meters down the Main Bazaar in Paharganj before we realized that we were going to get soaked on our way to explore Connaught Place, about ten minutes’ walk away. And wet Delhi streets are just plain miserable. Dry, they are dusty, trash-strewn, and dirty beyond belief. Wet, they are riddled with puddles of filthy water, which you can try to sidestep, moving from one elevated patch to another. Something in my soul shrieked wordlessly each time that water sloshed over my feet in its sandals or splashed onto my pants. We called it a day and headed back, for hot showers, a soap-scouring, and sending down a half-load of laundry to be done.