Badge of honor: a medal or token signifying an awarded honor or distinction; also in figurative use.
In our case, surviving two weeks in India warrants consideration for such a thing. In all fairness, we visited during one of the hotter months, a fact that we were reminded about almost daily. However, the heat doesn’t take away a lot of the issues facing this country. In any regard, here is our tale of the many cities we encountered.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
That’s largely been the sentiment during our visit to India. When Leaving SE Asia we had a feeling of excitement. India was a place we were both looking forward to ever since we designed our trip. We knew it would be tough, but were hopeful the previous six weeks of heat, crowds, traffic and general chaos was the ideal trial-run. Even with all that practice, it turns out we may have underestimated the potency of India.
Observation to keep in mind #1…
India is an open latrine. Not only for cows, goats and dogs who roam the streets, but the people too. Ever seen someone crap in the middle of the street? We have. And urinating you ask? Please…going wherever and whenever is no more common than the sun setting.
On our first full day we joined a walking tour given by a young man named Sabir. He is part of a program called Salaam Balaak Trust, which offers a chance for underprivileged youth to escape life on the streets and to maybe even get an education and follow their dreams, provided they put in the work and keep a good head on their shoulders. We also got a chance to spend some time with the newest members, kids aged 7-9, who had run away from home due to abusive and/or drug addicted parents and poverty; who so often turn to life on the streets to make money. It was really neat being able to interact with these youngsters who were excited to show us their new handshakes and hand slaps.
After our tour, we left for the HOHO Bus (Hop On, Hop Off), which is when all the street hustles you hear about started rolling in. And since Skyler sticks out like a piece of garlic naan next to some butter chicken, well we (he) were the perfect candidates. After being misled to the actual HOHO ticket office happened not once, but twice, in the span of 30 minutes, we finally found our way. Some of the historic landmarks we saw included the Lotus Temple that recognizes the Baha’I Faith, a monotheistic religion which emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind and Humayun’s Tomb. We missed out on seeing the India Gate in person (though we drove by) and the Red Fort, but thankfully India has a fort in just about every city, so we found our share in the coming days.
In a nutshell Delhi is every bit as crazy as we had heard and more callous than expected. With a population of over 25 million, it’s second only to Tokyo in terms of sheer numbers, but tops amongst population density by almost double to the next highest city. In other words, the impenetrable level of chaos is staggering.
Observation to keep in mind #2…
One of the more elaborate elements in the country of India is the train system. Once occupied as a British colony, railroad tracks exist everywhere and offer a link to most cities and towns amongst the 29 states in the country. This mode of transportation offers an inexpensive way to get from A to B. On the other hand, if you’re expecting Amtrak and/or a cordial experience, think again. The train stations look like abandoned bunkers inhibited by the homeless, loiterers and scammers who slightly outnumber the amount of rats who also call these places home. Additionally, each station has “porters” who carry your bags, make sure you catch the right train (since they’re never on time) and generally look out for you. Now their legitimacy…is up for debate.
Our first train ride was to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. This particular train wasn’t that bad, however, literally in front of the real security posed a guy who demanded our ticket info and extra money for not paying the tourist tax. Luckily Leah had the presence of mind to tell him to take it up with our hotel who issued the tickets and he soon shut up. We had hired a guide and upon arrival were quickly picked up and whisked away to the Taj Mahal. The Taj is a masterpiece beyond description with an ethereal presence making you feel it should be perched up on the clouds. Precisely crafted by 20,000 workers over a span of 22 years, its beauty doesn’t seem real, even when standing in front of and touching it. A tribute to the third wife of Shah Jahan, it’s unimaginable how there could be a grander gesture in the name of love. Before heading to the train station out of town, we saw the Agra Fort and the Botanical Gardens, which offers an almost equal and less expensive view of the Taj from behind.
Needing to catch an overnight train that same day to Varanasi, our guide left us in the hands of a “porter” at the Agra train station. Stashed in a waiting room with a fan and a couple of mice running around, we waited for almost four hours, three longer than anticipated. Amid the heat and stuffiness an elderly woman joined us, offering a chair to put our feet on so the mice didn’t get too close. Finally, we caught a break and met someone who was generally interested in our well-being, not our pocketbook. Wrong again, her falsified record book of passenger entries, ticket numbers and train times was just another way to scam money from foreigners who don’t know better. Once our train showed, after legit fears it wouldn’t, our porter directed us to our section and of course wanted another 100 Rupees for his time since our train was late. As if it was our fault. We got him to leave us alone and found our berth, which is typically reserved for a total of four people because it only has four beds. But in this instance we joined a family of four occupying their two beds and one of ours. Thankfully, and without an apology, he woke up promptly and made way to his bunk. Within an hour of our train ride, Skyler started to feel sick. If that wasn’t bad enough, the bathrooms were repulsive. There are no holding tanks to catch anything, it’s just a pipe directly to the tracks. No joke. This whole situation and the next 12 hours was just beginning to get ridiculous.
Observation to keep in mind #3…
If anyone is looking for an investment opportunity, franchising a store in India that just sells Pepto-Bismol would absolutely crush it!!! It’s non-existent and crucial. In fact, if you really wanted to double down, consider also stocking the shelves with a handsome supply of deodorant… maybe Tom’s of Maine since it’s organic? This could effectively negate the paralyzing and vast stench of B.O., a fragrance best described as a chili cook-off gone awry.
After biding our time on the train with like nine different answers as to when our stop would actually be, we got to Varanasi, our guess of what the apocalypse must look like? Literally crumbled and abandoned buildings were made into store-fronts, bedrooms, restaurants and pharmacies. It was pouring rain and as soon as we stepped foot off the train we were bombarded by anyone who had a taxi or tuk-tuk wanting to give us a ride. We had originally and foolishly declined our guesthouse’s offer to pick us up because we thought it was too expensive. We thought we could get a better price, and we did. But that too came at a price. After one of the nagging taxi drivers won our business over the rest, he took us to his taxi where we met one of his colleagues. What kind of taxi driver needs a co-pilot, we both wondered? We soon learned the kind that wants to talk you out of your hotel and any other plans you might have, to take him up on a different hotel and different plans, that are of course better. If the questions of where we were from and why we should choose his hotel weren’t enough, being told roads were blocked and streets unmanageable due to the rain were incessant. We finally got our driver to turn down one of these soaked roads, which looked dicey, but we were tired of the car ride and sales pitch.
Almost instantly the car started to take on water. The worrying began as the water inched deeper. And not just any water, the horrible, filthy, apocalyptic, street grime water. To make matters worse, the exhaust fumes started getting so bad they began to engulf the car with pungent and hazardous gas. We were asking them to turn back, pull over, anything, but keep going, but it was just bickering while the driver continued to truck on. Tempers started to rise. In the meantime, Leah was getting so dizzy from the fumes, she was trying to jump out of the car’s window – it was that bad. Finally Skyler erupted and lost it on these guys who instantly stopped the car. We grabbed our bags, which were somehow unsoiled, and waded through the waist-deep cesspool. Finding shelter underneath an awning out of the rain and unsanitary water, of course the seedy taxi/co-pilot guy made a scene and demanded money. 15 minutes of arguing ensued and out of nowhere a local guy came to our aid, diffused the situation and even took us to our hotel. Thinking we were part of another hustle, this guy was actually just a nice dude who wanted to be helpful. He wouldn’t even accept any money as appreciation. Imagine that? We finally got to our place and didn’t leave for four days as we both nursed gnarly stomach bugs. We did receive some help from our kind hotel owners, but it was futile, as only rest, water and porcelain could help us. Our experience in Varanasi can easily be summed up by an unfortunate waste of time and money with a nice view of the Ganges River.
Observation to keep in mind #4…
Almost every place is cash only, especially restaurants as credit cards are just a paper trail of taxes they’ll have to pay the government. Additionally, false advertising to get your business is rampant. By that we mean, hotels say they offer Wi-Fi, but “it’s down and a guy is coming to fix it the following morning.” Or you’ll find restaurant menus that are inflated with offerings they don’t have or never intended to carry to lure you in.
After deciding to still move forward with the rest of our days in India, the trip got infinitely better once we got to Udaipur (by plane!). This place was on a lake that featured cool breezes amongst a magnificent landscape. It’s also where they filmed part of James Bond’s Octopussy. So we know if it’s good enough for 007, its good enough for us. And it was. Of course our taxi driver from the airport dropped us off just before our hotel to meet his “boss” who is surprise, surprise, a tour guide, our positivity was still unwavering.
Still feeling the severity of the stomach flu, we didn’t have much luck at our hotel restaurant with what we could and would eat because they were out of all of it and unable to locate the places that did because our Wi-Fi was down, we were determined to take advantage of what this place had to offer, and we did. We caught an authentic folk dance show celebrating the villages, cities and towns that make up the state of Rajasthan. There are two floating palace hotels, which are very high end. One you can visit by boat and one you can’t unless you’re a guest. The one you can see was awesome in addition to the vantage point from the lake. A self-contained little city offered a restaurant, museums, gardens and amazing views of the town. Our outlook was starting to shift for the better as Udaipur was our favorite city of India. This helped set the tone for a much more upbeat experience, which was a great segue to our last stop in Jaisalmer.
Observation to keep in mind #5…
The smaller the town you go to, the more helpful and genuine the people are. Perhaps they are less jaded than the big cities, or maybe they just don’t know better, but places more off the beaten path just feature more pleasant people.
Being just 50 kms from the border of Pakistan created some mixed emotions, but it was an opportunity to experience the desert-side of India and ride camels! Plus, it helped knowing only a few days stood in the way of Europe and countries that represented a much better shot at respect, manners and overall awareness. So regardless of our experience, we were playing with house money! But to our disbelief and delight, our guesthouse was amazing! The people, the accommodations, the service and the overall concern for our happiness was almost surreal coming from almost two weeks of the opposite. A kind India, a welcoming India, an India that you feel actually safe in, is a remarkable feeling. From amazing food, to being able to walk the streets, hassle and hustle free, we enjoyed our three days immensely. The highlight was easily the overnight camel safari we did. 4-wheeling through the dunes of the Thar Desert was exhilarating as was a couple of amazing camels that awaited us who went by the names of Bubbaloo and ATM. Our guide Dev was fantastic, too, helping to direct our experience, teach us his favorite card games and ensure our campsite and food was top-notch, and it was. There’s few things like riding an animal seven feet high who navigates deep sand hills like a downhill stroll. Sleeping under the night sky with shooting stars and constellations in full effect, this was the perfect way to cap a trip full of ups and downs.
15 days in India wasn’t always easy, pleasant or safe, but knowing we ran the gauntlet of what one of the gnarliest countries threw at us, a Badge of Honor only seems appropriate.