On April 15 2009, the last day of Songkram, I walked out of my hostel in Bangkok and pleaded with the guy out front to refrain from soaking me one last time in celebration of the Thai new year. "I'm flying to India," I said.
Mumbai's airport looks modern, but that ends as soon as you clear customs. Before getting outside I had to run a gauntlet of money changers all offering me, as their friend, a better exchange rate than the other guys, who were apparently not my friend. I picked one at random, got some rupees, and proceeded to the pre-paid taxi counter. They charged me 100 rupees more than what it said on the slip. I was too tired to argue. I walked outside where my eyes immediately began to burn. A small boy approached me, asking for my taxi ticket, and forgetting everything I learned in SE Asia, I gave it to him. He handed it to the taxi driver standing next to him and demanded a tip. I rolled my eyes and gave him 10 rupees. "No, your money, your money!" I smiled, got in the taxi, and shut the door.
In complete opposition to SE Asia, there was no obvious narrative that came out of my time in India, so this isn't written with one in mind. In fact, the best one I could come up with was nothing more (or better) than learning how to live without what I had in SE Asia. My time in SE Asia was and is of priceless value to the rest of my life. India was a two month exercise in not knowing what the fuck was going on.
Ok, maybe that's an obvious narrative.
Socially, India was also the opposite of SE Asia. I was alone more than not - you're not going to see photos of me partying with other backpackers in this series. At the same time I met far more locals, and from all walks of life, since, well, they're everywhere, and they're curious about me, and often my money as well.
My route around India felt disjointed. I had planned on three months but the heat was just too much - the temperature in Delhi the week before I flew to Istanbul was around 45C / 113F. Srinagar was out due to sectarian violence. Amritsar was out due to inter-caste violence, and the route from Delhi to Varanasi and Darjeeling fell victim to the heat.
As for photography, India is going to be my only regret on this trip. The people of India are what is interesting about India, but I still have a lot of trouble raising my camera to people I don't know, especially Indians who are hyper-aware of their surroundings, and my white skin which makes me a novelty and source of attention even in big cities.
My hotel for the first two nights was not in a tourist neighborhood, and I spent my time doing little more than exploring the area on foot. In every country I always need several days to learn how to negotiate traffic, how to move in crowds, and how to order and pay for food in restaurants (somewhere in India I waved at a waiter to get his attention; instead of coming over to my table he waved back at me).
I spent the next five nights down in the "tourist" section of Mumbai (where the Taj Hotel, site of the 8-11 attacks, is located), splitting a room with an Irish guy named Marcus. I put tourist in quotes because about 80% of the neighborhood is locals and 95% of the tourists are Indian. Florence in the summertime it ain't. Seeing white people was a novelty even for me.
Mumbai taxi meter
On the fourth day I fell ill for the first time on the trip. I had a cold for several days and spent the first two in bed. Our hotel room was of the budget sort, which means $5 a night with dirty sheets, bugs, and no air conditioning in the sweltering Indian heat. But so what? I'll be alive for breakfast in the morning either way.
Marcus and I did a few touristy things around town - some museums and restaurants - but there isn't much to do in Mumbai for tourists. Walking around the city is interesting enough, but I need a bit more than that.
After a week, I realized Laos and Cambodia prepared me for anything I would encounter in India with two exceptions: the claustrophobia of how the huge masses of people, and that you can't escape India while you are in India. But the traffic, the negotiating, the poverty, the sometimes dead bodies laying about - saw it all in Cambodia.
As long as you just let it happen you will be fine in India. I've watched people fight it and I've never seen such comically futile efforts.
A week in Mumbai was more than enough - after three days I booked a flight to Goa - because it's Goa.
Goa isn't Goa anymore - for tourists it's a dirty beach with some restaurants off the sand that play techno mp3s from laptops pumped through large stereo systems. Culturally, yes, Goa feels much different than the rest of India, but the longer it has been part of India, the more its Portuguese past fades. The rave culture of the 90's is long gone - it's so bad that I got an ad for a "headphone party" where everyone wears wireless headphones because the authorities don't allow parties anymore, and certainly not with blaring techno. Talk about a cruel death. Experiencing this on the first day, I gave up on the idea of partying. As it turned out I wanted a week to be alone to think about what happened in SE Asia anyway. For similar reasons I didn't engage in the local culture or history either.
I spent time on two beaches - Anjuna, where beach goers are mostly western tourists, and Colva, where beach goers are, well, a large mob of Indians.
Late April is the end of the season, so much of the beach commerce was already shut down. There were backpackers around, and I did chat some up, but there was no party vibe as there was in SE Asia. Again, I wanted to be alone, sitting up in my head, inaccessible to the outside world.
I could have stayed at Anjuna for the whole week but I decided to roll the dice and stay somewhere else for several days. I heard rumors of "epic chillout beaches" somewhere down south but I couldn't be bothered trying to figure where these exclusive backpacker hangouts were. I picked out Colva and headed down in a taxi.
Wowza...there were five to ten thousand Indians on the beach when I arrived. Note how they do the beach differently than the rest of us:
Fun to observe for a while, but I wanted some peace and quiet. So I just walked a mile down the beach.
Given the brutal heat, I wanted to move north, and an Indian friend back home told me Udaipur and Jaipur in Rajasthan were good cities to visit. Jaipur got cut on account of what I heard from locals and other travelers (boring city unless you want to buy jewels), so I flew to Udaipur.
Well, the humidity was gone, but the heat was still there. Bit of a desert climate. The city has lovely architecture in my opinion. Nothing ornate beyond the palaces, but a lot of very vertical buildings that interlock in strange ways.
I started to enjoy being by myself in this city. I have good memories of lazy evenings spending two hours eating dinner up on the 5th floor of some hotel looking down on the motion below. Vegetarian curry, rice, chapatis, and a few beers hidden from view, as technically they're not supposed to sell them. As long as the authorities don't come by to inspect your stock...
This would have been a good city to walk around and get lost in, but I couldn't muster more than two hours a day out in the sun. I took a tour of the City Palace and got a guide (for $3, a quaint sum here in Italy) to show me around.
Down in the courtyard
I didn't do much else. I wandered around town with what little energy I had due to the heat. The streets were unusually clear for an Indian city; maybe a lot of people were smartly hiding inside. The James Bond flick "Octopussy" was filmed here - from the top floor of any building you can see advertisements for screenings of said movie on top of many of the hotels. I got an ayurvedic massage which was decent, but didn't live up to the Thai massage class in Bangkok. Since I decided to skip Jaipur, I made Agra (Taj Mahal) my next destination. The trains are usually full a week in advance, so I bought a bus ticket.
When the bus pulled up it was not as tall as I had expected. Or hoped. This was a sleeper bus, which in this case means 2x2 seats on the bottom and fishtank-like sleeper "bins" on top (this was not a double decker bus). So I get into my 100 gallon fish tank with my backpack and think wow, this is crazy. I open the window for the breeze (no AC of course), and notice my window has bars across it. Good luck getting out in an accident. For added fun, within the first hour we passed a bus that had crashed and completely burned with only the frame remaining. I actually laughed. Only 13 hours to Agra!
Again I didn't care, I had enough water to keep me hydrated and enough motion sickness pills to take down a horse. I popped one and went to bed around 10. At midnight we had a long break in some anonymous town (probably Jaipur, actually). I got out, relieved myself on the side of the road as everyone else was doing, got some juice, and headed back to the bus. This being India, they were in the process of loading a huge amount of cargo into the aisle between the seats and placed locals over the cargo. Now to get in or out I have to walk over 15 people. I got back in my fish tank and felt the panic of claustrophobia coming on, so I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, thought about some cute girls, and popped another motion sickness pill. I was out until 6am. I should have got a photo.
At 9am when the bus finally pulled to the curb, the temperature had to be at least 40c, I smelled like...well nothing good, and there was not much shade to be had. I got a rickshaw over to the hotel.
Agra is a terrible city - it feels poor, or maybe sad, in a way that other Indian cities do not. It has the Taj Mahal and nothing else. At one time it was the Mughal capitol, and its best days are clearly behind it. This was the first place on the trip where I felt outright bored as the Taj Mahal only took a few hours of my time and there was nothing else to do. On to the photos:
View from the hotel
The photo you know
Corner view (I'm standing against one of the pillars)
I managed to get train tickets to Delhi and got out of there as fast as I could. The Agra train station was a fabulous mix of beggars, policemen, people looking to steal my stuff, small gangs of street kids with no families, Indian tourists, foreign tourists, shoe shiners, a guy who tried to steal my ticket ("my friend here is the conductor, give him your ticket"), snack sellers, late trains, and a million people.
second class train to somewhere
This was my first break in India - I didn't do anything touristy for three days while I planned out what to do next. I was staying in Old Delhi whose streets more than enough excitement for the day by themselves anyway. I settled on heading to Rishikesh, as I wanted to do some yoga, and the guidebook described the city as "in the hills" which I took to mean "cooler." Wrong.
After the Agra bus ride I decided to start hiring taxis; the fare from Delhi to Rishikesh, a seven hour drive, was $30, as much as I would pay for a typical bus ticket in Europe.
The drive was incredibly exhausting - freed from the clogged streets of Delhi, my driver was empowered to drive at batshit insane speeds on dilapidated roads filled with every sort of conveyance moving at every sort of speed - often in more than two directions. The art of avoiding oncoming traffic by getting back into the left lane 50 milliseconds before everyone dies didn't scare me, but being tossed around like a pinball in the back did wear me out.
I spent two nights in a cheap hotel while deciding which ashram to stay at to do yoga. The one I picked had a two week minimum requirement. I chose it as I would be forced to dedicate myself to it rather than leave at the first sign of irritation or boredom - the mode I had been in for the past six months.
The city does have a holy vibe to it mixed in with a good chunk of tourism. A lot of middle class Indians travel here (or to nearby Haridwar, a bit higher on the Hindu holy scale) to bathe and give offerings in the Ganges.
Bathing in the Ganges
The Ashram was up the hill from the city, which itself is a bit up the hill from the Ganges - counter to what I said in the intro, you can actually escape modern India here. The only reminders are the murmurings of street noise from the city below and the frequent power cuts.
The Ashram schedule was thus:
5:00 am - meditation
6:30 am - yoga
8:00 am - breakfast
12:00 pm - lunch
6:30 pm - yoga
7:00 pm - meditation
8:30 pm - dinner
I had never done yoga before. I felt intimidated as I assumed everyone there would be yoga experts. Not so - skill levels spanned the range, from an old Indian woman who did very few of the exercises to some ultra-bendy Japanese yoga veterans.
The workouts were killer - for the first four days I was phsyically exhausted by the 40 minute mark out of 60, and I took the entire 3rd day off as my muscles felt like they had been ripped to shreds (not far from the truth - I had some odd looking bruises in strange places). Another guy at the Ashram, Alex from Russia, told me he did two hour courses back home, and in comparison to the classes we were taking he described the classes back home as "yoga therapy."
By the second week I was making it through the entire workout, my flexibility was showing signs of increasing, and my poses were becoming more fluid. I was losing weight (I had been throughout India) and I was gaining muscle tone. I even started showing signs of a six-pack (now long gone after calorie-rich Turkey and Italy). My posture improved, my shoulders were staying back (as opposed to forward as they are when hunched over a computer all day), and I was walking differently as all my core muscles had strengthened. My body felt better. In summary, everything you expect from yoga.
I sometimes attended the evening meditation sessions. While I made improvements on most visits, I found that my supercharged mind, modified to handle the often vastly different circumstances of daily life on the road, would not shut up. It was frustrating, and as soon as you are frustrated, your hope of meditating is zero. So it goes.
Socially there wasn't much going on. I had good conversations with a number of the people there, but given the environment, people tended to keep to themselves. I spent many hours reading books and sitting by candlelight in my room listening to music. It was also the first time in years that I allowed myself to read spiritual themed books. I read several by Alan Watts - had I discovered him at 22 instead of 32 I could have lopped off five years of mental effort and anguish.
Lakshman Jhula bridge and Swarg Niwas temple
Most days I would wander out for a few hours with the intention of getting food (the food at the ashram was good and already paid for but almost identical on a daily basis) and hitting the internet cafe, but it was mostly to people watch. Tourists, cows, hawkers, spiritual frauds, beggars - the usual Indian panoply.
By the end, despite how good the yoga was, I was bored and in a bad mood. It was good that I forced myself into two weeks, as otherwise I would have left after one. I was excited to go. After some long, comical and typically Indian negotiations I hired a taxi to Shima.
My first day here was my only bad day in India - I was extremely tired after a long drive through the hills, I felt very alone and vulnerable, and I panicked. The chaos is never far away. After a night's rest, though, I felt much better. The temperatures were getting into a livable range, and this was the first Indian city I explored extensively on foot. It's a huge Indian tourist town - decades ago it would have been quiet when it wasn't much more than the former summer home of the Raj. Again, "tourist town" has a very different meaning in India than it does in Europe - it's still very much India - the presence of corporate restaurants and shops does nearly nothing to change the vibe.
Two nights were enough, there wasn't much to do. Next up was Manali, the base camp before heading into Ladakh / Kashmir.
The ride up wasn't bad by Indian standards, but it's still India:
Finally, finally, finally - cold weather. I could put my jacket on. I found my way to the westerner hotels, climbed under an actual blanket for the first time in six weeks, and slept for 14 hours.
Old Manali is filled with pot smoking Israelis - after a two year stint in the military I'd head straight here myself. I did nothing for a week. I found a great breakfast place with good coffee, eggs, and bread; after breakfast I'd do little walks around town, read, take naps, surf the net. That's it. The only eventful moment came with the Tibet guy I befriended and spoke of when it happened.
View from my hotel balcony
The road to Leh opened for the season the day I got to Manali - and it doesn't start the season in good shape. This meant no buses - the only choice is a twenty hour jeep ride. It's also not so much a road as a military path through some seriously forbidding terrain as you'll see in the photos. It was built by the military as an alternative to the route north through the troubled Kashmir valley. Ladakh is historically Tibetan and sees almost no violence.
The ride north should be split over two days, but I think one company owns the route and they make more money doing it all in one shot. We had the the same driver for the entire drive - this led to the unusual hope that the driver was a serious user of cocaine. He actually did a great job.
We left at 2 am and got in at 10 pm.
I was stressed out for the first two hours. I got used to harrowing mountain rides in Laos and Vietnam, but those trips were on what I would define as a road. Here we were traveling on a small right angle hacked out of mountains that have been crumbling for eons. Were were driving over boulders and ice. The mind adjusts quickly; eventually it was even fun.
Early morning somewhere past Rohtang Pass
After this point conditions improved a bit - parts of the road, maybe 1/3rd, are even paved. Some crazy Indians even do the whole thing on motorcycles:
Royal Enfield Washout
Now that's hardcore.
I was doped on motion sickness pills but there wasn't much sleep to be had. My seat had no headrest and the jeep was constantly tossing about. I was up in front - the back seats must have been hell.
By lunchtime I was in adrenaline mode and not worried about sleep. In this photo there are some tents barely visible on the left, inside are Tibetans serving up soup, rice and chapatis with people eating on rugs.
Then back on the road for endless hours of driving.
Shoot the Gap
As the mountains are continually crumbling from the yearly snow melt, the roads are in constant need of repair (not a bad capture from a moving vehicle, eh?):
Border Roads Organization workers
Around 7pm we came to the second highest motorable pass in the world (#1 is just to the north of Leh). I was delirious when I snapped this.
I met a couple of Indian tourists from Bangalore in the jeep - everyone else was a local. They worked in the tech industry and were the first Indians with whom I could easily relate to - with other Indians there had been a mild to severe lack of context. We got a hotel room together and passed out for twelve hours.
This is a Tibetan city with an Indian military presence and a smattering of tourists. The season was just underway so it was not crowded with trekkers. I did not want to do a trek - I did not have appropriate gear and wanted no part of sucking wind at 5000 meters. I ended up doing two jeep trips out of Leh. For the first two days I explored the city.
Leh looking south
Up the stairs
The Indian guys were off to do a trek, but they knew another group of guys in town who were doing jeep treks, so I hooked up with them and set off on a trek to Pangong Lake. The drive out was seven hours and we overnighted at a primitive hotel on the lake. Out of everything I've seen on this trip, the barren and crumbling Himalayas were the most awesome - awesome in the biblical sense. I'll let the photos do the talking.
Chang La pass
Chang La view
Pangong lake southeast
We took a rest day, and then set off for Lamayuru, a Tibetan temple up in the mountains. The route roughly followed the Indus river to the west.
To the ladder
Tibetan prayer flags
Built around 1000AD, the people here were living on the thinnest of margins. Now they make some side income from tourism...
I did nine days in the area and was sick of the cold (I'm too used to temperate bay area weather, I guess), and hopped a flight back to Delhi. Shooting out of that mountain valley on an A320 was awesome - awesome in the terrifying sense.
I returned to the same hotel in Old Delhi. The first day I hit a museum and the second day I hit the epic Red Fort, the capitol of the Mughal empire from the late 1600s on. The third day I went and saw the new Star Trek movie (heh) down at Connaught Place, and the last day I rested. The highlight of Delhi was walking around Old Delhi, definitely the craziest Indian scene I saw in all of India. You know how painters will cram their paintings with 500 characters doing 500 different things in order to overload your mind and hold your attention? That's what it looks like.
Two months was enough - India had ground me down. I was ready for hot showers, cold drinking water, paved roads, and some emotional distance. Turkey, next on the list, would give me three of four.