my jaunts: india

the market side of the taj mahal – stunning colors.

over a year has officially passed since my last post, and unsurprisingly it has been a full 19 months!  my son is now 22 months old, and i’m back in the swing of things at work.  i’ve also traveled a fair amount since February 2016 and it saddens me to think that I haven’t had a chance to write down my memories.  one trip in particular was a completely unique and unforgettable experience: india.

the stunning taj mahal!

i’ve always been intrigued by india.  a country full of intensity in color, sound, smell, flavor, people, and spirituality has always enticed me.  thanks to alanis morrissette and liz gilbert, i just knew i would arrive in india and find the clarity for which i’ve searched all these years.  so when an invitation at work to teach training in india popped up in my inbox, i pushed aside thoughts of the logistical nightmare of a two-week trip (that required me to leave my 10-month old behind – i mean, honestly), and eagerly replied yes to the opportunity.

visitors at the taj mahal in ALL OF THE COLORS!

enough time has passed where i can say with much confidence that i would return, and i would return with excitement.  but the trip at the time was a tough one, despite the comforts of business travel that allowed me to fly and stay in significantly more comfort than a personal trip would have allowed.

welcome to india! lush landscapes, wonderful people, rickshaws, colonial architecture: i fell in love with this country.

there are many reasons not to go to india.  first, i had to obtain a business visa, the process of which is confusing and non-sensical, even with my exceptional organizational skills (not-so-humble brag).  it took me almost a week to properly fill out the forms, obtain the proper approvals, drive to the visa location in houston, and ensure my passport with said visa would arrive back in time to book my flight.  also, india is generally not safe for foreign women to travel alone.  i was required to travel with a firm-appointed driver, and not allowed to walk alone to a restaurant down the street from my five-star hotel (which had a gate manned by a guard who checked under the car and in the trunk).  additionally, depending on the destination, india is very hot (turns out bangalore was not, but more on that later), and women must dress more conservatively (not necessarily a “con” but certainly an adjustment for this texas girl who is used to shorts in 90+ degree weather).  and I would be remiss if i did not mention the driving, which involves no lanes, more cars than you’ve ever seen (unless, of course, you’ve been to india), and a complete disregard for traffic laws (though i did witness nine lanes of highway traffic come to a complete halt for a pedestrian pulling a large wooden tea wagon).

a typical traffic jam in delhi, full of bumper-to-bumper cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, and hand-pulled wagons.

in general, india is just tough if you’re used to the united states.  it’s a developing country and many of the things we take for granted (e.g. continuous electricity, drinkable water, electronic documents) just aren’t always around.  there was definitely a point in the middle of the second week when i was weary from travel, which was an unfamiliar feeling for me during a trip abroad (travel is literally my favorite thing to do).

i adored all of the hand-painted trucks in india! i saw this one in agra.

all that being said, the pros to visiting india definitely outweigh the cons.  india is an experience more so than simply a destination.  its people, who i learned from my students, are warm, inviting, empathic, helpful, and extremely interested in making friends.  my students’ families cooked dinner for me and my students would sing songs for me to share their culture.  the food was fantastic (kebabs! banta!), the colors were as intensely bright as i had hoped, and the country was lush in vegetation and natural beauty.

an upscale (and adult) twist on the popular children’s fruit drink, banta. so delicious! india knows flavors.

i started in bangalore, located in southern india on the deccan plateau, and enjoyed a drive around town in the wildly southern california-esque weather.  my driver, raj, was a treasure trove of information and drove me to an outdoor market where locals shopped for food while cows lounged all around (when we pulled up to the market and a cow was outside my door, raj encouraged me to get out.  “but are they dangerous?” i asked.  “sometimes!” was his reply.).

a woman and a cow outside of a neighborhood market in bangalore. cows are everywhere!

from bangalore i traveled to agra, the home of the taj mahal.  it is difficult to describe how painstakingly detailed the construction of the mausoleum is, and the intricacies of the marble work reminded me of the carvings of the al hambra in grenada, spain.  the town of agra was worth seeing in its own right, as our van passed a flurry of activity of markets, people, cows, bright orange buildings with shaded openings, families stacked on mopeds, musicians, more people, shops, homes, monkeys scurrying atop buildings, more cows, more people, bicycles.  it seemed like the true india that i was missing from my five-star gated hotels.

a closer look at the intricate inlaid gems (there are rubies!) in the marble of the taj mahal.

after agra, we drove to delhi, where my husband (oh yes, did i mention my unbelievable husband traveled for two full days to join me for four days over a long weekend?) convinced me to take a bike ride through old delhi.  old delhi is literally the oldest part of delhi, a part of town full of markets each specific to meat, spices, marigolds, and fruit.  i was skeptical when we arrived at the crack of dawn in a seemingly unsafe area, and was even more skeptical after we signed waivers and pedaled down the butcher street past a minivan open to display inside a mystery carcass for sale.  and the skepticism peaked when we turned down a narrow alley, i lost my footing, and fell into a giant heap of trash (cutting my leg in the process).  i believe i cried, swore, and yelled at my husband all in one breath.  the tour guide motioned me to the front of the group so she could keep an eye on me (i was easily the worst cyclist of the group), and we continued on.

an early morning street scene in old delhi – so much going on here, including a potential electrical hazard.

from there, i am not exaggerating when i write that the bike tour of old delhi was one of the most incredible things i have done in my entire life.  my entire life!  it was a scene that i have only seen on television and have never experienced.  the smells and the colors and the bustle of people was unbelievable.  we passed markets and vendors and mosques and temples and soup kitchens and luxury hotels.  we stopped at a road-side cart selling chai tea to passersby, and against my better judgment i drank it (i was assured it was boiled and would therefore be fine, and it was!) and it was delicious.  it is with great regret that i did not have the foresight to purchase a go pro camera for my helmet, as my clinging to the handlebars did not allow for many photos.  we climbed to the top of a haveli to overlook the city and later ended our tour in the center of town eating delicious meats at karim’s.  it was marvelous.

living quarters above the spice market in old delhi. the spices were so potent that we had to cover our mouths to keep from choking as we climbed the stairs!

the words here don’t do it justice, but if you remember anything, remember that despite all the difficulties, just go.  it’s worth it.  i hope i see you there.

to read: in light of india by octavio paz, along the ganges by ilija trojanow

to watch: idiot abroad in india, slumdog millionaire, any bollywood movie

to visit next time: jaipur, goa

driving into agra from delhi.