First Impressions of India, 2019.
“You see, we cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them…”
I started daydreaming of India long before I stumbled upon Mistry*, who has brought me closer to (for most people) inconceivable poverty and that sensitive, almost imperceptible line between dignified life and basic survival. In a country with a still-existing caste system, privileged ones live together with urban and rural poverty from society’s social and racial margins. Cultural shock is often a very unpleasant experience – I was excited but scared of the first encounter for countless reasons.
And she was quite different than in my imagination. While I was expecting a more rural, dirtier, poorer India, true beauty greeted me. In most cases, the streets could be better maintained, but after a few hours, I did not notice it at all. Because I’ve seen the dirtier and the poorer countries than India many times before. I’ve seen the same smiling and hospitable people in every country I’ve been to.
What was different this time was a combination of everything I’ve experienced: spirituality, luxury, extreme poverty, colorfulness, people, tumultuous history, grandiose palaces and temples, cultural heritage, atmosphere, and something in the air. Only some experience India in the same way. Someone needs time to understand her; someone needs more time to explore it to get to know her beauty. I felt her uniqueness immediately, the very first morning, after (almost) a sleepless night that I spent lying in the sleeping bag with my back injured.
My first encounter with authentic India happened right then. Episode: looking for a phone card. Place: Street under construction. The cow was on the morning walk, and people were sitting on the sidewalk. I could smell food, but also something dirty. In a meditation pose, a man was in front of the shop; he poured out the plastic washbowl of water on himself. The kids were asking me for money. The blazing sun made me feel weak, and the noise in my head was unbearable. I was simultaneously coping with complete chaos in thoughts and feeling of happiness: 15 countries for 13 months, of which almost 6 were on the road, away from home. I managed to get here one step further, and the distance no longer exists.
Exploring even a tiny part of India in such a short time seemed impossible. Frankly, I was still determining what to expect because, apart from visiting tourist locations, I usually spend a lot of time wandering around unknown streets aimlessly. But there is a saying: for everything you have missed, you have gained something else. And in this case, I gained more different tourist attractions and cities, in which I will stay shorter and make the best use of available time. The highlights of this trip were the essential items from my bucket list: the Holi Festival, the sacred cities and the Ganges River, the Golden Triangle, and the famous Taj Mahal.
To Pushkar, one of the most famous cities to celebrate love or colors that signify the victory of superior over immoral, we headed from the central train station in Delhi the same morning. I was looking forward to this ride, which is, according to the experience of some acquaintances, one of the best ways to experience a unique India. And I wasn’t disappointed at all. If I had to use a single word, I would say: Lively! And it really was.
Imagine the chaos with few seats. A small world and countless faces in it. In the beginning, there were only a few of us, and the rules of a “personal space” were respected. After a short time, we realized this rule does not exist here, because soon they were everywhere: beside suitcases, on a bag. Scene 1: We argued with an older man who occupied one of our seats. Scene 2. I was lying on a seat, watching the same man eating his lunch. I imagined stealing his food because I was hungry. Scene 3. A woman in front was breastfeeding her child. I could see bare feet from the seat above. Faces kept changing, and each of them was curious. Like everywhere in Asia, they enjoy traveling with foreigners.
It was the night before Holly. After 8 hours-long rides, we arrived in Pushkar. There was a festival atmosphere on the streets. I saw a few cows walking freely, and some tourists were posing for photos with them. Street food, clothes, a crowd of people and musicians on the scene – everything was painted with the colors sold everywhere. I like this town; you can feel some pleasant energy and warmth. A few hours later, the frames changed quickly: streets, crowds, music, and colored dust in the air (I managed to swallow it). Smiling at people, kids, and cows, I ate the color again. Everything is colorful – faces, clothes, the ground we walked on. Not long afterward, we were in the desert. Caravan, camels, Gypsies dancing. Mischievous kids. And music, only this time different. Another face of India.
The following day, in a single-day walk through history and culture in magnificent Jaipur, we saw a completely different face of India. The world’s center of gemstone cutting together with Agra and Delhi makes India’s Golden Triangle. The Pink City owes its color to the Prince of Wales; in an attempt to impress the Prince ahead of his state visit in 1876, the king had the entire city painted pink. Maintaining a recognizable color since then fosters the authenticity of this outdoor museum. Besides the fairy-tale palaces, fortresses, and temples, it contains an impressive observatory built for the love of a princess.
Haridwar & Rishikesh
Diversity of every kind is what adorns this country. In addition to all its beauty, many people visit it in search of spiritual peace and enlightenment. Sapta Puri is one of seven holy pilgrimage centers in India (Varanasi’s most sacred city).
At first glance, I liked the city in some strange way. Haridwar: a bit rough and chaotic, but it has something that makes it desirable – the Ganges River. This is a place of pilgrimage for millions of believers every year. One of the holiest cities has caught me unguarded. I felt sick. Evening prayer is on the river, and ritual bathing is believed to wash off all sins. My feet are in cold water. Peace and restlessness. My tears. Inexplicable sorrow, distress, belonging, and not belonging. Confused thoughts and vulnerabilities. For some reason, this city has been engraved in my memory, and besides everything, I left it unwillingly.
And only 25 kilometers far from Haridwar, there is an oasis of spirituality, a town where for all those that seek spiritual growth. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi restored thousands of years old Vedic literature and taught people how to live in harmony with the laws of nature. He has also contributed to its popularization beyond the borders of India.
All we need is love. And love is mysterious in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world. It is believed that meditating here leads to salvation. I needed more time for all this beauty in the foothills of the Himalayas. To explore it a bit more and to walk down its streets longer.
I was thinking of the story of the controversial Yogi, the personal guru of the band, and about the making of The White Album while climbing up the hill where the legendary Beatles were discovering secrets of transcendental meditation. This ashram was a refuge, a place where everyone was welcome and where all persons were equal.
I’m remembering all the things I learned a few years ago when I was practicing kickboxing with yoga for beginners. Apart from the most basic, my memory was erased. I only manage to hurt my leg without effort. Two guys helped me to sit and took a photo of me. I met families with small children. This story is not attractive to tourists only. Nevertheless, this charming town is one of the few places in India where the Ganges is clean enough to swim and even bathe in.
When you want something completely different, it’s time to move on. In our case, it meant a return to urban chaos. Although dirty, Delhi has an old-world charm. Modern buildings, old buildings, cardboard houses. People on the streets, rickshaws, tuc tucs, scooters, street vendors, and cows make this beautiful mess. And the unique experience is just wandering around its streets.
And I miss words that conjure up two completely opposite impressions of this city. Suppose the first encounter with him will hurt you. And then the excitement will follow. Because, as strange as it may sound, there was something pure and appealing in that poverty, no matter how cruel it looked at first.
And not far from Delhi, there is a beauty that will leave you breathless. The symbol of timeless love is one of the main reasons why millions of tourists do not skip visiting Agra. The mausoleum was built by 22,000 workers in 17 years, and it is called the masterpiece of the world’s cultural heritage.
And while I was struggling to wrap a long piece of fabric around my body, I soon realized that I would fulfill my longing desire and get a photo in front of the Taj Mahal. People were passing by and smiling, saying that they loved my sari. I was smiling, too, although I knew they were just kind to me; this was probably the worst attempt at making it ever! I regretted not buying it earlier to choose a design I would like more. Nevertheless, I am glad I met Agra, so I didn’t want to bother myself because I may look terrible :)). After all, out of the new 7 wonders of the world, I checked off my list 6th, and only Chichen Ica remained. To me, enough reasons for happiness.
And it’s hard for me to find the right words to end the story of India. Because, for the second time in my life, I wasn’t ready to travel. However, the desire to meet her has won. And, although I really liked it, this story will, for many reasons, remain unfinished…
Hope you enjoyed my First impressions of India. I’m leaving you to daydream about the land between reality and legend. Until some new stories. To read more about India, click HERE.