India. Enndeeaaa. Letting the word roll off your tongue elicits visions of grand palaces, majestic tigers, brilliantly adorned dancers and streets congested with rickshaws and street food vendors. It was, until recently, only one of my travel fantasies. I was happy letting it occupy the top of my “list,” weighing down every other country as though population itself influenced order, until I could find an amount of time worthy of exploring such a culturally, historically and geographically beautiful country. But I’m not one to pass up travel opportunities (especially ones that involve my sister), so instead of ten weeks of India, I settled for ten days. What I discovered is that sometimes the tip of the iceberg is worth the trip.
Valerie and I began our adventure in the hustling, bustling, chaotic capital of Delhi, a city with which she was already familiar. She was correct in predicting that I would love the city, even if just for the North Indian smorgasbord available on every street corner. We visited (the severely underrated) Humayun’s Tomb. We ate piles of naan and palak paneer. We tried on elegant saris. We stuffed ourselves with butter chicken and garlic naan. We shopped trendy stores at Connaught Place. We feasted on butter naan and yellow dal. We strolled through Lodi gardens. We consumed order after order of stuffed naan and vendi aloo. I’ve always dreamed of a food vacation, and Delhi comes pretty close to counting.
As our food budget for Delhi dwindled, we made our way North by train to Hardiwar and Rishiskesh, two very different, but equally spectacular cities on the Ganges River. We stepped off the train in Hardiwar with few expectations, and were greeted by hoards of young men dressed from head to toe in orange and carrying large, brightly colored, plastic…things, for lack of a better term. We squeezed our way into the marching crowd as we discussed what the “things,” as we took to calling them, could possibly be. Later we found out that during the month of July alone, the city hosts ten million Hindu pilgrims who carry their shrines on foot from all over the country to the Ganges river, where they bathe and collect holy water. Valerie and I spent our afternoon observing the goings on from a vantage point on a bridge over the river. It was a culturally eye-opening experience, to say the least.
Further North was Rishikesh and Rajaji National Park, where we visited a local village, met an elephant named Yogi, saw peacocks in the wild, hiked to a secluded waterfall, discovered there are crabs in the mountains and relaxed in the cooler temperatures. Rishiskesh is a yoga hot spot, well known among hippies and backpackers, but we also found the relaxing atmosphere to be a nice change from the frenzied city scene. From our hotel balcony perched high above the churning river, we chatted and read and made plans for the reaming few days of our trip.
The last stop on our whirlwind tour was Agra, home to the world famous world wonder, the Taj Mahal. Even on a rainy morning with a bad tour guide, it did not come close to disappointing. The pearly white minarets, the elegant bulb presiding over the magnificent mausoleum, the still reflecting pools all shined spectacularly in the early morning sun. The intricately carved marble screens, semi-precious stone inlays and perfect symmetry all gave depth to awe-inspiring feeling of standing in the shadow of the most beautiful building in the world. Classic photo poses completed, we made our way to Agra fort, for more history and astounding views of the Taj. As our train pulled away from the station later that evening, we could finally say we had done India. When we finally arrived back in Delhi, Valerie rushed to the airport and flew home to Texas that night.
Once again, I boarded a train, bound this time for Mumbai. I didn’t have plans or a hotel or even much time to explore the city, but what I found, I loved. I visited the slums with new friends where we saw rats as large as cats and played cricket with the kids. Later we did a little shopping and caught a Bollywood film before I caught my flight home to Ethiopia.
We packed our days as full as we could, but still only scratched the surface. Getting an in-depth feel for a country like India might take years, and understanding the culture could take even longer. Despite a few negative aspects, like generally unfriendly people and downright disgusting men, I would still go back to India. There’s a lot left to do. But then again, there always is.