India

By bskinna

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30 hours after locking my front door in Seattle, we're settled into our apartment in Delhi! It's almost 4 in the morning here and we sat bleary eyed in a cab as it haphazardly made its way through Hauz Khas Village's tangled side streets. I didn't have the energy to properly react, but everything you've heard about drivers here is true. The lane dividers are treated like loose suggestions, red lights warrant a honk but certainly not a stop, and turn signals are for the weak. Even in the middle of the night I like the energy Delhi's putting out, and our host is exceedingly pleasant so far. Beyond excited to (/sleep on any flat service) explore tomorrow!

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Sitting in Lodi gardens on a 15th century Mogul Tomb listening to the birds call and watching dappled sunlight play on the red sandstone carved gate. India may assault your senses, but it seems to soothe them just as well.

First tuk-tuck ride is also in the books and other than a terrifyingly close encounter with a horse and a minor bidding war at the beginning, I'd say it was a success.

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We just finished exploring old Delhi and I'm a little bit in love. This is the India I've read about- delightful chaos. Streams of people and rickshaws and livestock all jostling for space amongst narrow lanes and alleys. Wafts of spices, delectable fried things and the earthy smell of wandering cattle all battling to dominant your senses while you do your best to avoid being run over by a scooter.

We booked what was billed as an adventure tour and it did not disappoint!! Our guide stated firmly several times that this was an experience, not a tour, and that shopping or tipping was not allowed. We climbed to the spires of the spice market through hidden back lanes, flew kites with a group of schoolchildren, and watched a man train his group of pigeons on the roof of his home. Along the way we stopped for some ridiculously good street food. My personal favorite was a winter Delhi treat called "mixed wealth". It was like a sweeter whipped cream topped with edible silver and crumbles of what we as a group decided tasted like sugar cookie dough. We ended with the best meal of my life in a private Havel.

(Just as a side note, I'm writing this in the gorgeous Red Fort campus, and have had about 8 groups of delighted families asking for photos with me)

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We got a late start today because I couldn't mentally gear up for another morning without coffee and nowhere is open until 10. We tried for an English breakfast at the bakery below our Airbnb...It was pretty awful, but played almost exclusively 90s boy band ballads, so overall I give it a B.

After a short brush with death via tuk-tuk (equal parts thrilling and terrifying ) we got to the Qutub Minar complex. A quick note on Indian attraction admission- for the larger monuments there's a separate ticketing counter for foreigners. It's usually totally free of a line , which is rad, but about 10 times the cost, which is less so. Nowhere will cost you more then $5, so don't throw a fit. I'd also advise to carefully count your change. All three of us have been short changed a couple hundred rupees each time we've bought a ticket. A quick tap of your (lacking) money and a frown and they'll hand the rest over, no real fuss. I honestly have gotten a real kick out of the whole game- I respect the hustle.

We've been struggling to come up with a way to describe the Qutub Minar Complex in a way that really captures the experience. "Complex" brings to mind some gray faceless building, and this was anything but that. It was half garden and half historical ruins...some that are in near perfect condition and some just a few remaining pillars. The whole space was almost ridiculously compelling to me. I Laura Croft'd my ass through the grounds about 3 times (no easy feat, it's massive. There's probably around 15 tombs and three mosques on the property along with the tower). Combine that with a perfect seventy five degree sunny day, and you have a very happy Brittany.

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Bought some very questionable "Ray Bans" while taking in the India Gate for 100 rupees. After that everyone in a five mile radius offered to sell us everything from postcards to a kidney. A lady with a glare that I honestly believe could punch through steel at 20 paces grabbed my hand and let me know I was getting henna done. Worth it. I look fly as hell.

We meet a super nice guy while we were walking around trying to find our way to the Golden Temple, talked a bit about our trip and his home country of Nepal, and he helped us barter our next rickshaw down to about a fifth of what we've been paying. He says he'll marry me in another life, and I think future me could do much worse.

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Holy hell Agra is insane. Packed with people and donkeys and cows and near constant honking, it's kind of a nightmare to be honest. We arranged a last minute driver with our host in Delhi after our planned one fell through and made the trip down this AM. No time for breakfast so I made do with chips and water and Josh with a gas station muffin. Bryan ordered some monstrosity called a paneer hot dog- we both made fun but it actually ended up looking decent. Anyways I was hungry and cranky with it by the time we checked into our guest house (which is a calm little oasis, thank god) so we made a quick KFC stop. Our driver is pretty miffed that we didn't take his Taj Mahal Restaurant suggestion, but he's still taking us to the Agra Fort to explore.

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Five years ago I read an article that the Taj Mahal was closing to through visitors at the end of 2015 and said, out loud "I'm going to stand inside the Taj before then". With three days to spare, I lived up to that claim. I watched the setting sun tint the white marble dome a rose blush. I marveled at the individual cut flowers inlaid with precious stones. I stood and breathed in the majestic symmetry mirrored up from the reflecting pond. I felt the smooth marble floor of the worlds greatest monument to love pass beneath my feet as I strolled through the sitting room, running my fingers gently along the latticed window.

Rarely am I completely in any one moment. I'm usually busy planning- thinking of how I'm going to describe something or what my take away is going to be- but I felt uniquely present today. Calm and content and grounded while I took in the Taj Mahal.

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Watching parakeets flit around the city of Fatehphur Sikri. It was abandoned after only 50 years of use when the well ran dry and the palaces and mosques are evocative in their ruin. We got here pretty early after leaving the hellish Agra traffic (notables sited: a goat wearing a tiny sweater, a rickshaw with a large shrine to Andy Sandburg on the back [to my dying day I will be bitter I wasn't able to capture a photo] and a full family of 6 all squeezed in a single motorbike).

The city itself is breathtaking but similar in style to the other forts we've seen, and honestly red sandstone is starting to blend together for me. Its the mosque that grabbed my attention- the tile work and the carvings were mostly intact and gorgeously colored.

I also made two adorable friends after passing over some oranges and a bottled water. I think the hardest part of travel here by far has been the massive amount of children begging on the streets and outside the monuments. They run in little groups and are barefoot and make the sign for hungry. It's completely heartbreaking, and a total moral bind. The kids are usually sent out by an adult "collector" who acts almost like a pimp according to the guides I've read, so you know rationally that passing over money isn't going to really help them, but doing nothing while a probable orphan tugs on your pants and makes the sign for hungry is about impossible and I feel like a monster. I've read about a couple charities that do outreach and education programs that I'm planning on giving to, and in the meantime I'm passing over bananas or oranges. Not super helpful I'm sure but it usually gets a smile at least.

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Crossed into Rajasthan and arrived at our kickass Airbnb! It's open and airy and furnished with wood pieces and twisted metal statues and lush house plants. There's a solarium with a hammock overlooking the pink city's rooftops, and our host is bringing us breakfast and chai there tomorrow. I'm not mad about it. (Fun fact I just learned, chai actually means tea, so when you order a "chai tea" you're actually ordering a "tea tea", which is understandably not super helpful. Masala chai is what most people are thinking of, and it's completely delightful here).

I'm glad to be sticking to Jaipur for the next couple of days, the driving heavy legs are not the best of the trip. For three people spending as much time together as we are I think we've kept conversation rolling pretty well, but after 5 hours spent zipping past trucks and motorcycles, everybody's tapped out.

Our host is a delight. She's a short sturdy older woman who seemed to radiate good cheer and self assurance as she called up tea and arranged a driver and generally streamlined our stay. Her husband is one of the top sculptures in India (his work is all around the space here and it's divine), her daughter and son are a graphic and a fashion designer respectively (one of whom is "traveling for some time in South Africa") and I want her to adopt me so I can be as cool as apparently this whole damn family is. Anyways, I'm exhausted and have the best shower and the most comfortable bed of the trip so far calling my name.

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In a solo tuk tuk back to the apartment for some alone time. Had a lovely afternoon exploring the back lanes of the bazaar and munching on street food, but I need some space to process (and even the smallest window of time when I'm not at all worried about being struck down by traffic). I'm vibing on Rajasthan so far, but I know myself fairly well after 25 years and I need some quiet space.

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Here's a problem I never thought I'd have- I'm lost in the secret passages of a fort. I wound my way deep into the labyrinth connecting Amber palace to the fortress 2 kilometers away. It's been a lot of fun- dead ends and hidden courtyards and flickering lights suddenly opening into courtyards and gazebos overlooking the rolling hills of Jaipur- but I've not seen another person for around 20 minutes...Please send food and water, I live down here now.

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Spent the last few days just outside of a little town called Bundi. Kipling wrote the jungle book there. I am a literature groupie (I'd do unspeakable things with Hemingway if he were still alive) AND it looked like a nice break from the frantic pace of the other, more colorful, cities of Rajasthan we've been spending time in. Bundi was a no brainer.

We've all three been sniffly and a little lethargic with head colds (I held out the longest but when you're spending this much time with another person, you're not avoiding their illness). A day spent lounging on the impeccably kept grounds of the resort reading and watching parakeets play on the still water of the lake, misty hills in the distance, was just what I needed.

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Walking back from dinner on the lake yesterday through Bundi's mostly deserted streets we saw a whole group of foreigners hanging out on the steps of a tiny chai shop and decided to drop in. We ordered masala chais and watched the fresh spices get pounded out and the expert pouring from goblet to cup and back again go on while sitting in the most eclectic and graffitied space. We chatted for a while with a group of older Australians very versed in Indian travel, sipped the perfect spiced blend, and listened to the proprietor sing along to his drum beat. Lovely way to end the day, watching the cows and dogs and pigs of Bundi wander by the steps.

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Kicking my hells against the crumbling outer wall of the palace, watching kites fly above the city of Bundi far below. Paper kites are all the rage with kids here, I haven't seen a city scape yet in India not dotted with brightly colored paper squares.

I just had a lovely little chat with a 12 year old practicing her English. Her family is from Bundi and they just got back from a trip to Delhi. Her goodbye was "you are most welcome in Bundi and a very sweet person". How damn cute is that for a pre-teen to say?
You run into so many people trying to sell you things or trick you out of rupees here that it's such a treat to talk to someone who only wants to ask a couple questions about the US and share a bit about their city. The historical sites are impressive, but the chance to get a feel for a different city will forever be my favorite part of traveling.

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We're about an hours rough drive outside of Bundi at a waterfall. Well...Josh and Bryan are down at the waterfall. I'm at the lookout on the top. I got chased back up by a family of aggressive monkeys. A couple local dudes whapped the little shits with a stick and got them to leave me alone, but they're all hanging out on the little plaster cow statue at the front gate grooming and biding their time, so I've given up.

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Udaipur is damn nice so far. We're staying at a pretty swank Haveli right on the lake (man made lake, or so we've been told, but it's sparkling and impossibly clean, so good work all around is how I feel) and spent the day lounging poolside and getting messages in the spa. To be totally honest the pool is above ground and clearly not designed for lounging, and the spa is less a palace of relaxation and more a makeshift room, but we leaned into it and had a treat-yo-self day regardless.

I'm sitting on the rooftop restaurant now waiting for my travel companions to join me. They went to a sound and light show while I wandered around the back lanes of Udaipur for a couple hours, but we made plans to meet for our dinner reservations. They're about a half an hour late and I skipped lunch today and am split between being concerned for them in general, and incredibly annoyed and hungry. I'm not the best person

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Waiting on what will be I'm sure a very interesting chicken burger at the old pleasure palace of Udaipur's maharaja. ("Because of course you need a vacation spot from your palace" was our general snark). I never thought I'd say this, but I'm Indian food-ed out. I could happily not see another curry for a month.

Gorgeous clear skies and a boat ride out to the island were a choice way to start the day, and now we're chilling in a beautiful garden.

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"Slowly slowly, you learn to dough". I watched one of the owners of the only female run spice shop in Jodphur laughingly berate Bryan for about 2 and a half hours at our cooking class today. I helped in a peripheral manner (mostly supervising from the couch) while she look us through a yellow daal, vegetable byrani, and a couple types of chiapati (breads). I bought a small fortunes worth of spices, so I hope everyone back home is ready for some Indian food.

"Ok boss, now you massage everything all together, no one left out, everyone important. Yeeeeeeees" is forever going to be my favorite way I've ever been told to stir something, ps.

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Had a solo trip up to the fort in jodhpur today, and I feel like I talked to half the city, it was great. I played cricket with a group of school kids, rode on the back of a motorcycle, became pen-pals with a spectacularly old man (he asked that I take a picture of him, print it out, then mail it to him, and promised to write back), shared chia in a families home while they showed me pictures of their son who's studying in Seattle and "is such a nice handsome boy, let us give you his email" and was lead most of the way back to my hotel by a giggling group of kids who took turns holding my hand. I am utterly charmed, India.

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I'm in the tiny desert town of Osian waiting for our jeep to pick us up and take us to our safari camp. I'm feeling dusty and dirty and gross and fairly ready to be home, if I'm being honest. I've loved India, and I've seen the sights of a lifetime and things that are almost unbearably lovely, but the constant grime is starting to really get to me. I haven't sat anywhere that didn't feel at least fairly dirty in almost three weeks, and I've hit my wall.

I'm really excited for the ride out into the dunes tonight, I'm hoping I can see desert stars.

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Rode the night train from Jodhpur to Delhi. My history with sleeper trains is poor (a run from Paris to Venice that involved 7 strangers, one broken fan, and a Bathroom Incident that definitely requires the capitalization) and I was not looking forward to repeating the experience, but this one wasn't so bad.

We talked for a while to a couple from Hungary who seemed to hate most things, but still made me laugh. Bryan mentioned how much he'd enjoyed the culture in Budapest and they replied "well with the population issues we have and the direction of the government, I'm sure the culture will be totally dead within 100 years...anyways it's nice now". Not sparkling balls of optimism, it was akin to riding the rails with a real life Debbie downer, but it's always interesting to talk to another traveler. I slept for maybe 3 and a half hours in total and I'm alternating between being loopy and being s straight up bitch, so I'm going to nap and then hit up Delhi for round two!

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All over India at almost all the major attractions there's been "Sound and Light Shows" advertised. I couldn't wrap my mind around what a sound and light show would entail (sound and light being fairly important to all shows, in my experience) but we caught the one at Akshardham, the gigantic Hindu temple complex, tonight, and my mind was blown.

Different colored lights and mist and water jets all were projected over and around the different buildings on the ground and mixed with live actors to portray a popular story from the Hindu tradition. It was larger than life, impeccably produced, and (even without understanding a single word that was being said) wildly entertaining. Families and kids were all around, which I totally get. I would have gone ape-shit for that show when I was a kid. As an adult I was still pretty invested.

Akshardham was interesting, it really went through the teachings of the guru and founding of the order in a way the other temples (being more places that actual devotees use, and not a place meant for tourist visits) didn't, but it still felt like a sacred place. Some churches or temples have all the divine sucked right out of them when the gift shops go in, but some still hold that reverent sense for me. It felt like a spiritual Disneyland, but I mean that in the most positive way possible.

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After a couple false starts (a gang of rickshaw drivers refused to drive us until we agreed to stop at some stupid commission shop "just to look, check the prices!") I'm at dilli haat bazaar finishing up some knick-knack shopping. I got a snake puppet for my nephew that I'm so tickled by I forgot to even barter for it.

Quick snack pit stop at the fantastically named "momo-Mia" then back to it!

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Last day in India and we're spending it kicking around Humayun's Tomb. It predates the Taj and a lot of the same architecture is present. It's gorgeous, of course, and the grounds are huge and well kept, covered in a handful of other monuments, fountains, and swaying palm trees.

Now that it's almost time to go I find myself almost aching to stay on the one hand, and incredibly excited to be home and get back into my comfy Seattle routine on the other. A writer who's name escapes me (I'll google it later if I think of it) says that what makes people complex and truly realized is the ability to live paradoxes- that is the ability to hold completely opposite and conflicting ideas all as equally correct and vital, and not break down at the logical incongruity. If this holds true, then no place is more human than India. Every emotion I've experienced-- and there have been countless, keenly felt-- I've lived it's opposite just as strongly. Often within the same hour.

It's not an easy place to travel, to be sure. There's no peaceful stroll along wide boulevards, like in Europe. You're too busy watching out for tuk-tuks, rouge motorcycles, and cows to really wander... But the contrast between the hectic streets, all but crackling with energy, and the peaceful green and unparalleled beauty of the grand monuments make them that much more striking.

I won't miss the burning garbage, the constant honking, or the vague threat of loose monkeys, but there's so much that I will miss. The friendly smiles and "namaste"'s from nearly everyone you pass. The groups of delighted kids running through the streets alongside me posing for pictures. The life changing street food.

I have both hated and loved India with all my heart. Tonight, sitting around a family bonfire celebrating the harvest, laughing and chatting and watching the flames of 1000's of households fires dance over Delhi's silhouetted skyline, I knew in my bones that all the frustration and hassle of India would fade away but the love stay strong.

I'd like to think that India has helped broaden my world view, at least a bit. That it'll make me more patient, or present, or grateful or something, but honestly I'm not sure. Three weeks in another country probably won't much change the view that 25 years in my own has all but cemented, but I think I've at least glimpsed another truth here, an understanding of the world outside my own. I'll do my best to pry my eyes open and spot it in my life when I can, even if it's just an affable head waggle on a crowded train.

Thanks for the experience, India. It's been incredible.

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