India: Love it or hate it. It is the liveliest place I have been to so far. The craziest. Cows in the middle of the road, the traffic, the honking, dust, garbage, vendors, Hinduism, motors, tuktuks, touts, crowded trains—the moment I started walking the streets of Delhi, this mix dazzled me at every turn. Walking was like negotiating a maze as I sidestepped cow pies without getting hit by a motorcycle or tuktuk or bumping into people. Locals, especially men, stared while touts and vendors hawked their stuff and beggars followed at my heels. Being a tourist, I found out, meant being the attraction du jour.
The streets may be tough, but the ancient intricately carved temples, the colorful culture, and the friendly locals made walking them worth it. Even small temples put on a show—groups of people were chanting and offering yellow flowers out on the streets.
Kindness came from unexpected places. Once, I found myself lost and asked a stranger in Delhi to direct me to the nearest forex shop which turned out to be quite a distance away. Finding that I had no rupees left, the stranger paid for my tuktuk fare.
When a group of college students asked if they could have a picture taken with me, I realized that the locals had been staring mainly because of the novelty of my foreign-looking face and relatively fairer skin.
True, India can be challenging for a tourist, never mind those news stories about women getting raped. A stroll down city streets often means confronting grinding poverty, the peeling facade of a decaying city, and the locals’ uncompromising belief in religion. It is unpretentious, and that is part of what makes India so fascinating.
I got mixed reactions from people when they found out I would be backpacking solo in India for my birthday—excited, perplexed, people feared for my life. But for 11 days, I went around like the locals, walked a lot and took the metro, tuktuk and trains.
Around four in the morning, a day before my birthday, I arrived in New Delhi. Touts offered me a ride and followed me closely up to the prepaid taxi booth. I got to my host’s place and found her waiting for me in front of their gate. It was good to finally meet Anita Gupta, a middle-aged school teacher living with her husband and mom. I had met her online at Couchsurfing, a community for travelers helping other travelers by hosting them for free, all for the love of exchange of cultures.
Anita and nani (grandmother) were very caring, with Anita giving me a map and tips on how to get around, while nani gave me fruits before I leave every morning.
Three sites of Mughal influences are must-sees in India: the Jama Masjid, and the Red Fort and Qutb Minar—both Unesco World Heritage sites. The Jama Masjid mosque stands grand at the heart of the market with its 30 steps surrounding the four entrances. The Red Fort is a huge castle of red sandstone that consists of several halls adorned with relief carvings of floral and star patterns. Getting up close to the tallest stone tower in India, Qutb Minar, was overwhelming, even more so as I circled the tower, following the flow of calligraphy embedded on the surface.
A structure of more political value is the India Gate built in honor of the soldiers who perished in that era when Britain invaded India. The soldiers’ names were inscribed on the walls, while the statue of Sir George V which once stood on the canopy at the back of the gate was removed. For Hindus, it was a symbol of British retreat and a triumph for India. This part of Delhi was the cleanest and most orderly I have been to during this visit.
I wrapped up the Delhi leg of my trip with a sumptuous dinner with my hosts at their place, a celebration of my birthday as well.
Three hours by train from Delhi is Agra, a shocking journey as I had to book the only available class left, the second to the lowest, and a non-air conditioned seat. The train station was disgustingly filthy, with garbage and human waste on the railway tracks. Getting to my seat was an even bigger challenge as people clogged the train aisles. Everything and everyone looked beat up, but it was what ordinary folk in India had to put up with, something I had to experience if only once.
Agra was a rural version of Delhi, with as many cows roaming the streets and coming home before nightfall.
While I found myself growing fond of the cows, it was the sight of the Taj Mahal that made this visit memorable. I felt ripples of excitement as I drew nearer and saw the Taj Mahal perfectly framed by the arch, golden sunlight touching the pearly white marble structure. It was glowing, and like the local grade-schoolers who were there on a field trip, I too felt awestruck.
Inside the mausoleum, the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal lie at the center, but the solemnity of the sight was ruined by the cacophony of crowds rushing in for their mandated 20-second glimpse of the tombs, as well as the whistle of the guards hurrying on the visitors. But overall, this grand structure and the touching love story behind its creation, was definitely a marvel to behold.
Far from the madding crowd of Agra is a remote and peaceful town with lush grassland, trees, and temples of love rendered in exquisite detail: Khajuraho charmed me the moment I stepped out of the train. It was a good break from the crazy city.
A Unesco World heritage site, the temples on the western site of this town have the most intricate sculptures wrapping the inside and outside walls, all the way to the roof. Some of the eight temples date back to about 11 A.D. All made from sandstone, the sculptures of the gods were amazingly sensuous, with couples entwined in various permutations. Popularly known as the “Kamasutra temples,” the structures are dedicated to their god of love.
For tourists who have ample time to see Khajuraho, surprises and spontaneity are just rewards. On the way to one of the temples in the old village, my guide and I managed to hitch a ride on a public jeep that just happened to pass by. Serendipitously, I met three other Couchsurfers with whom I had dinner under a full moon: fish curry cooked over an open fire, some freshly-kneaded chapati and fantastic soup.
It was a good way to prepare myself for a veritable feast of the senses that is Varanasi.
A tourist had told me, “Go to Varanasi because it’s Varanasi.” It stoked my curiosity for the seemingly most extreme city, the most alive, most diverse and least sanitized, being one of those cities where the heart of Hinduism lies. There is probably no Varanasi without its religion. Here is where one can witness the intense rituals performed everyday in reverence to their gods. Varanasi invited me to pay attention to its soul, rather than its skin.
The Ganges River is the life of Varanasi, where morning and evening rituals are performed everyday to honor their god of Ganga. It is a holy river that Hindus believe will cleanse their sins, as they submerge themselves in its water. The morning ritual was best viewed while boating as fog softened the crowded ghats (a place for worship) that lined the riverbank.
What started as a peaceful scene slowly turned into a huge family affair, as people flocked the ghats (steps leading to a river) and the river to pray and bathe. In a few minutes, everything became full of texture and movement. One ghat was dedicated for cremation, with piles of wood stacked meters high, smoke belching from its windows. At night, people gathered on the stairs leading to the riverbank for a grand performance, a ritual that involved singing, praying, and offering fire and incense in a repeated circular motion.
Walking the narrow streets is a colorful experience as well, as shops sell everything from clothes to food to light bulbs, even tailoring services or bespoke suits done in a day. Silk scarves and sarees of fine quality were cheaper, and there were shops that offered one-day tailoring services.