So, everything must come to an end – at least that’s what they say.. The people who say that..
This whole trip to India was kind of an experiment – I wasn’t completely sure why I was going, I just felt that I should go and so tried to keep an open mind and let myself be guided by some inner compass. I think that turned out pretty well.
It seems the trip can be divided into two very different sections; the India part for the first four weeks and then mini-Tibet for the last three weeks. Very different experiences indeed. India was fun and chaos and as much as I enjoyed that adventure, mini-Tibet was where I lost my heart. Before even leaving Denmark, I had a feeling that I needed to go to the mountains – where everything else was up for debate, going to the mountains was the only thing certain. I never expected it to have such a profound effect though – and it really did. There’s the places you like for various reasons, you either live there or could imagine yourself living there – they live up to your general standards plus a little extra. And then there’s the places which resonates on a much deeper level, where your soul feel at peace and at home. That’s how I felt there at the foothills of the Himalayas, surrounded by Buddhist monks and immersed in Tibetan culture. At peace and at home.
The first couple of days in Mcleodganj I stayed at a very nice hotel with great reviews, beautifully decorated rooms and a nice family running the place. And yet, it just didn’t feel right. I had noticed a house close to the temple that seemed to speak to me but which also looked very closed off – definitely not your regular tourist place. But of course I had to explore why I was drawn to it and so I rang the bell and met the most wonderful Tibetan family and their hysterical little dog – and the next day I moved into my new home. The room was small (but functional), the bed was a single (but not too hard), the shower was a bucket with a cup (but nice and warm) – and it just felt right. I loved my little and very simple room – my Tibetan cell :)
Walking around the town and the surrounding areas, exploring waterfalls and amazing mountain nature, eating delicious food, meeting people and making friends – those three weeks didn’t feel like some vacation trip, they felt like life.
A few days before I had to leave, I went to the temple like many times before – but this day there was extra security and I had to leave phone and camera outside. Inside there was decorated with flowers and flags and a sort of audience area had been set up. Honestly, it didn’t even occur to me to go stand there (I’m just not an audience kind of person) and so I went upstairs and sat with the monks and nuns who was filling up the place for what would obviously be a full day of chanting. By then I was pretty certain that the Dalai Lama would be there and I was excited to finally see him. In the meantime, I enjoyed the chanting as much as ever. Then, maybe an hour later, people downstairs started to move around and the photographers got into position. We all looked down and across the courtyard towards His Holiness’ house where a group of lamas and security people and other important people were making their way towards the temple. First I saw his feet, then his whole legs and then the entire body of this very sweet old man, walking and smiling and just looking lovely. It was a moving moment and maybe even more so because I was sharing it with a group of nuns who were just as excited as I was. He made his way across the courtyard and up the stairs to where we were all sitting and after a short round, he went into the temple – and shortly after the chanting started again and it went on for the next two hours. Then he spoke – and laughed – for about half an hour and then more chanting. Obviously, I didn’t understand what he was saying but nevertheless, experiencing him in person was special.
The final days there I made sure to soak up as much wonderfulness as possible while also taking care of the last practical things like sending the last package, meeting with friends and buying presents. I tried to keep the balance between feeling sad for having to leave and grateful for having been there.
The initial plan had been to leave a few days early and then celebrate Holi, a Hindu festival with Delhi friends before leaving India. But I really had no desire to be in Delhi again and the Dalai Lama would be giving a teaching on the morning on the 8th that I was sad to miss out on. And suddenly I realized that I had been limiting myself, thinking that I needed to do the responsible thing and take a bus to be in Delhi early enough to avoid stress – when I could just as easily attend the morning teaching and then take a taxi straight to the airport. Okay, it would be a 10 hour drive and also cost just a tiny bit more than the bus but I really don’t believe in limiting myself beyond absolute necessity – and I’m not convinced that ‘absolute necessity’ was applicable in this case.
On the morning of the 8th I woke up very early and decided to just get up and head to the temple. On the square in front of the entrance I had a glass of chai, then bought a chapati and went inside. This day there was a ton of people, a ton of security and in many ways it was no longer my temple but was now a place for all the tourists who had been filling into town the past couple of days in order to see the lama.
A little after 8am, His Holiness appeared and took his seat in the front and for the first 20 minutes there was different rituals taking place and chanting. I was sitting with a group of elder Tibetan people in front of me and monks and nuns on all other sides of me. The elders had brought little dried flowers that you use for a symbolic offering to the teacher, the lama, and was making sure that everybody around them also had one, me included, and a monk sitting next to me explained all the formalities. For more than three hours the lama was teaching, cracking little jokes a few times and being really cool. I actually ended up having to leave before he was done because I had a taxi to catch but it turned out that he stopped shortly after. The entire teaching is available online;
I managed to zip my backpack – quite an accomplishment since I had bought around 15 pairs of pants, several shirts, a ton of yakwool hats and gloves and shawls and other presents. Three times throughout my trip, I sent home packages of stuff to be able to fit everything and still it was a challenge and I had to wear three shawls on my way home because there was no way I could fit more in the bag.
Me and my driver left Mcleodganj around 2pm – he was very colorful because of the Holi but luckily completely sober. I have never had any problems with motion sickness but going down the mountain with all the sharp turns, holes in the road mixed with the Indian driving made me so sick. It was awful and I don’t know how people who get motion sickness ever go anywhere. I didn’t really have much choice and just closed my eyes and tried to embrace the motion. And so for the next almost three hours, I was in the backseat in a kind of fetal position, clutching the seatbelt and with my eyes closed – focusing on breathing, not throwing up and really regretting starting our road trip by eating a sandwich. The poor driver seemed a little worried and once he realized how crappy I felt, he tried to avoid the holes and drive softer. Once we got down to flatter grounds, I got better and we stopped for chai – both of us relieved that I was going to survive. Back in the car we put on music, Hindi pop, and now it was a real roadtrip. Driving towards Delhi I was reminded of how the real India looks and I both reconnected with the warm feelings I have for the country as well as was relieved that I was experiencing it from the peacefulness of a car and not having to actually deal with it :)
Driving is really meditating for me and a time for trance like reflexion (I really hope it’s a different experience for the person who is actually driving) and as we moved through the landscape, I relived the entire trip. It seemed like the perfect way of wrapping up my Indian adventure.
After a few hours more we started seeing a lot of Sikhs all going in the same direction, dressed up and riding sometimes three and four on the same motorbike and in caravans in big trucks. Apparently there was a very important Sikh festival and as we got closer to the city where it was, the traffic got more and more congested. Reaching the town where it was, it took us more than an hour to pass through and if we hadn’t been pressed for time, I would have wanted to stop for a while.
The festival plus a couple of accidents (other people’s) put us behind schedule and so the last 4 hours the driver just stepped on the gas and raced towards Delhi – I was struggling to stay awake but failed. At 1am we pulled up in front of the airport – the drive had ended up taken 11 hours and my body was not happy and my head was blurry. We said goodbye, I went in and through security, spend my last rupees on some snacks and found my gate just in time for boarding – perfect timing.
Sitting down in my seat, I noticed a foul smell. Seriously bad. I was a little surprised and very embarrassed to stink like that but thought that maybe it was understandable after spending all day in a hot car. And then I saw them. The source of stinkyness. And they didn’t belong to me but to the man sitting behind me. And they weren’t wearing socks. And they were gross. I was appalled and very irritated to find them right there, within my smelling reach, on an eight-hour flight. But honestly, I couldn’t bear bitching about it – I mean, what could he do. But I could bear to take a picture and then I used the flight blanket to cover the gap between my seat and the wall and that way blocking the flow of the stinkyness.
I slept most of the way to Frankfurt, spend two very boring hours in transit and then a short flight to Copenhagen where I was picked up at the airport.
I never like returning home and more and more I realize that maybe I should start taking that seriously.. And change reality..
India has been amazing. I have so much newfound inspiration and gained valuable insights. This journey has been so much more that I could ever have imagined it would be – and I’m not even done digesting it all.
In the middle of my coming-home-blues, I feel incredibly grateful for the advice of good friends, for the support of my family and for allowing myself to follow the signs and going on adventure.
So now I’m in Mcleodganj, home to both the Tibetan Government in exile as well as Dalai Lama.
I haven’t had a chance to hang out with the lama yet but everywhere I see his influence. Further more, the place is naturally full of Tibetan monks and nuns.
Much more Tibet than India – and I kind of like that.
Never Give Up
No matter what is going on
Never give up
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country
is spent developing the mind
instead of the heart
Develop the heart
not just to your friends
but to everyone
Work for peace
in your heart and in the world
work for peace
and I say again
Never give up
No matter what is happening
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up
~His Holiness The XIVth Dalai Lama
Varanasi turned out to be really cool and not as scary as I imagined. All the way along the river there’s so much life and constantly people doing their daily routine; yoga, laundry, business, just chillin’ – it all happens at the ghats.
After just a couple of hours there, my thighs were burning from all the stairs. Naturally my hotel were at the top on another one of these very long stairs and to make it even better, my room was on the 4th floor. It’s okay though, with all the food I’m eating, a little exercise is needed.
On that first day, after I moved to the other hotel I found a really cool cafe overlooking the river and with delicious food. Turns out the place is in the Lonely Planet book and so I was far from the only person who found the place. Nevertheless, the food was great and instantly I developed the habit of having both a salad and a another dish and then of course chai. As a result I was so stuffed that I wished I had eaten less – but honestly, it only took one look at the menu to realize that no way was I going to taste all those yummy dishes unless I made sure to have two every time. I would be a very dedicated food critic, someone should hire me. I was joined first by Peter, a Swedish musician and then by Michael, the Austrian guy who moved hotel same time as myself. I was actually pretty content being by myself but it was nice to chat for a while and then I just excused myself and went on adventure through the maze.
The maze is awesome! Some places the alleys are so narrow that you can touch both sides at the same time – not too narrow for honking scooters of course – and full of people and dogs and cows and little shops where you can buy everything from Indian sweets to used books to colorful clothes to instruments of all kinds. I ended up standing at this spicebooth for a good while, tasting and smelling and going “Ooooh!” The old man was explaining the ingredients and purpose and made sure I got a little taste of everything. I ended up buying a small can of masala spice, the real amazing kind. The other can I bought was also a powder mix of ginger and cinnamon and a lot of other stuff that I have forgotten already. You just eat a pinch and it’s an explosion of taste! It’s for after a meal and is supposed to help the body – whatever it’s for, it’s one of the most intense tasting experiences and if it wasn’t because I was still relatively early in my trip, I would have bought a lot more.
That day walking around Varanasi I adopted the city and made it mine, at least for a while. And every step in that place is a new adventure, new food and new people – most of them trying to sell you something. I ended the day on the rooftop of my hotel, looking down at the aarti ceremony where little lights are put on the river and float for a while before sinking – very beautiful.
The next morning I had decided to get up early and walk all the way to the big burning ghat. That first evening I hadn’t planned to go to one because I needed some time to prepare for it but now I thought myself ready – or as ready as ever. So at 6.45 am I walked down all the steps and started walking north. Even this early, there’s a lot of people and it was really cool to walk through this already buzzing community. It took maybe 20 minutes and then I was at the beginning of the burning ghat. First of all I was actually relieved that no fires was burning because the area itself is pretty intense. It’s big and I think there’s room for maybe 15 or 20 fires at the same time. There’s several old temple’ish structures and they’re all almost black with sooth and there’s huge piles of different kinds of wood lining all buildings, big weights standing here and there so they can measure just the right amount of wood needed for a specific body. Some people are selecting wood from the piles and dragging it to the fire pits, other people is shoveling ashes into the river and it’s just another working day. The whole place feels heavy and dark and I guess that’s either natural regarding what’s going on there – or maybe it’s just because my western way of dealing with life and dead is confronted and provoked by this very different way of handling death and the dead. I walked through the place and stopped once in a while to allow the impressions to settle and it was not at all a horrible experience. One of the street vendors offered me chai but I wasn’t that relaxed with the whole thing that I would have been able to eat or drink anything while being there – Burning bodies, not good for appetite. I’m glad that I went there and I’m not at all disappointed not witnessing any actual burnings. I know some people go there and then they hang out to catch the whole show – although I guess I understand the motivation to do that, for me it was enough to see the place and I also guess that a part of me finds it a bit morbid to want to watch the burning of people, even if they are already dead.
Walking back I regained my appetite – by now the city was fully awake and I walked by a photo shoot which was so crowded with both the crew of the shoot as well as people stretching to catch a glimpse of the star. The star was a cow. A very nice cow indeed, wearing something that looked like a big rug and looking a little bored with the whole thing. Being a superstar cow, I guess can get old.
Back at the hotel I had a hot shower – or as hot as the standard Indian shower gets, which I’m sad to say isn’t that hot at all – and then breakfast on the rooftop. The rest of the day I just took it easy; did some laundry in a bucket, walked around and explored a bit, rested and read and then in the afternoon I was going to that same cafe again to have even more food. The plan was to bring my computer and get the blog updated as well as catch up on the emails – but again I was joined and keeping focused is for me really hard when someone keeps asking questions and chatting and I’m apparently not able to just be honest and tell them to be quiet. After a couple of hours I gave up and once again excused myself.
Up until now, Varanasi has been the warmest place on my trip and it’s been wonderful with the sun. I can’t imagine being here in the summer though when the temperatures reach around 40 degrees celsius. The dust and pollution make the warm weather seem almost suffocating and being by a river is not the same as being by the ocean – I would favor the ocean any day.
The next day was my last in the city and I had plans with Michael to do a boat ride up the river at sunrise. We met at 6.30 and found a boat within 5 minutes. All along the river, the boat owners compete to convince you that your life is not in any way complete before you have been boated up and down the muddy water. We agreed on a price and set out in the still dark morning, bringing with us a small candle to offer the river and salute the rising sun. We were not alone, I think every tourist in town was in a boat that morning, some sitting alone wrapped in a blanket and some in big groups with live music. The latter ones seemed awful. The poor Indian guy who was rowing our boat was very nice but his effort seemed very relaxed and within just 15 minutes all the other boats had left us far behind. He also seemed to be zig zagging quite a bit though so maybe if he had kept the direction straight, we would have been ahead of the rest.
We got to the burning ghat and this time a group of people were standing in the middle of the pits and between them a body wrapped in a thin sheet was lying on the ground while the wood was being stacked.
Soon after I tell the guy “chalo!” which means something like “let’s go!” and gesture in the direction of our starting point and now with a big grin he put some muscle in it and we almost make waves. Almost.
I wanted to take care of some practical stuff, like going to the post office and also find a new book before I had to go to the train station so we plan to meet for lunch. I felt ready to leave and took one last walk through the maze and soaked up the last bit of my Varanasi adventure. I pass the place of the photo shoot and they are all done working and the cow is standing alone, relaxing finally. I find a bookstore and take a while to decide on a book. As always when it comes to books I felt like getting at least a couple but having to carry everything myself I managed to settle on just one, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The girl in the shop was the daughter of the owner and no more than maybe 14 years old. She was so sweet and we talked a little about life and dreams and Varanasi and she liked my sunglasses and her mom was standing next to her and was looking very proud :)
At the café I meet Michael and very unexpectedly he had bought me a present. I open it and it’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying! How weird is that?! We were both amazed and laughing and I gave him the book that I had bought for myself so now we each have one. I guess I’m really really supposed to read that book and I can’t wait to find out why.
The next couple of hours almost feels like routine now; backpack, rickshaw, train station and buy snacks and the heading towards Agra and Taj Mahal <3
I escaped Rishikesh..
On one hand I was itching to get out of there and on the other it had become a safe and familiar place and leaving had me feeling a little anxious. It seems that when making a decision to move on – whether physically or on a more subtle level – there’s that moment just before taking the first step where you face the unknown and wonder if where you are is really so bad.. Maybe I should just stay here.. I mean, here is nice, right.. Taking a few days to relax in hippieworld had been fun but I was eager to step back into my flow and so a little anxiety was not a valid reason to stay.
This time my train ticket got confirmed a few hours ahead of departure and I must say it was really nice to know that there would be no dilli issues. The cap ride from Rishikesh to Haridwar was as exciting as expected – the driver said it himself while laughing, “India traffic is crazy, yaah!” He was such a sweet guy and shared his life with me for the hour the ride took – no education beyond his 9th year because his father had died, no wife, no girlfriend (which was repeated several times), just work to support himself and a couple of his sisters as well with his 3000 rupees a month. The differences in how our world look is incomprehensible and yet I saw not even a trace of bitterness in him.
I was in class 3AC and was in the top berth. I know I’ve said before that you want to have the top ones but when it’s three layers, the top one is pretty high up there and the climb is a bit of a struggle – and I mean, like I don’t have a big enough audience as it is. Further more, because it’s three-layered instead of just two, there’s not really enough space to actually sit upright. I was able to share the seat with the guy on the bottom berth but from now on I think I prefer either 2AC or bottoms.
The journey was fine – my fellow travellers, a young Indian couple and a guy, was nice but very quiet – well for the first 17 hours at least and then just before I had to get off, they asked if they could take a picture of me. Seriously.
The picture thing has actually happened a lot. I honestly lost count of how many people have wanted to get photographed with me. The first couple of times it happened, I was expecting them to ask me to take their picture, you know, so you can get the whole couple or group in the same picture, but then realized that it was me they wanted in it.. It’s kind of perplexing to me and makes me feel slightly uncomfortable but until now I’ve tried to just play along. Being famous must be horrible.
Well, after almost 18 hours I reached Varanasi. Something about that city both fascinates me and scares the shit out of me. There’s the historically interesting side of it; the city is ancient and considered one of the holiest places. And then there’s another side, something dark that I can’t really define but like I said, it kind of freaks me out a little. I fell straight into the tourist trap and let the rickshaw driver take me to a guest house. I thought that by telling him I wanted to go to the main ghat I had steered clear of it and the guest house was definitely an okay place. The old guy checking me in made a big deal out of telling me to be careful when I walked around alone and then proceeded giving me very detailed examples of what could happen to me – apparently really bad things. I wanted to go for a walk before settling in, it was almost dark and I was hungry. It turned out I was in the middle of this maze which is very common in the Indian places I’ve been this far. Very narrow alleys full of holes and cow poop and dogs – and of course no street signs. It took perhaps 5 minutes to get to the ghat and from their you just follow the river. I realized that the ghat I was near was actually not that near to the main ghat and walking I was approached by a lot of guys, all very difficult to get rid of again. I got the one of the burning ghats, this one was the small ones and there was only one fire burning and it must have had no more than an hour left in it. I wasn’t planning on going to a burning ghat this quickly, it was something I wanted to ease into and I’m so glad that I wasn’t able to actually recognize a body on the fire. I man comes over to me and starts explaining about the burning and that his family has worked there for the past generations. Hi tells me to come stand a different place (which the guidebooks etc are warning you about because usually it’s a scheme of some kind) and at the same time the young guy who has been walking with me starts speaking to him in Hindi and it sounds like they argue and the ghat man asks me how I know the other guy, who looks like he’s trying to signal something of great importance to me.. All very confusing and the energy shifted instantly to something unpleasant so I figure it’s my cue to get out of there and leaves.
It’s now completely dark and I walk towards my guest house. Another young guy is now walking with me, asking all the same questions, telling all the same stories. A few other guys are walking a little ahead of us and behind us and seems to adjust their paste to ours. I’m looking for the place where I have to take the steps up and away from the river and into the maze and tries to remember exactly for how long I had been walking. The guy keeps telling me that he knows my place and that it further along. We come to a place where I’m certain I haven’t passed before, the guy still trying to convince me that we need to keep going but I turn around and starts walking back. At that point I wasn’t completely comfortable with the situation and sent out a request for guidance and protection from all available resources :) Not long after I found the right steps and also my way through the maze.
Next day I decided to find another guest house closer to the main ghat but when I tell the old guy, he flips out – yelling at me for changing my mind when I had told him that I probably would be staying a couple of days. I try to explain the situation to him but without result and the just lets him know to stop yelling at me and that it’s bad business.
Anyway, I found a great place and my room had a view of the river and the staff was really great.
It’s funny, in Denmark and most places I’ve stayed around the world, the hotel staff will be both men and women but the cleaning crew is most commonly women. In India I haven’t seen even one woman working in a hotel, it’s all men. Feeling very good about the move, I was ready to explore the scary Varanasi.
– and mountains and sunshine…
Rishikesh is beautiful. The Ganges river has an amazing turquoise color and on each side the mountains are rising all lush and inviting. I have accepted the invitation and so tomorrow I’m going to go explore.
When I got here yesterday, the rickshaw dropped me off at a hotel. It was a nice place and my room had the most amazing view. But I wasn’t really feeling it so I went around the area and found another place – I don’t really have a view but the location is great and I only pay 300 INR as opposed to the other place where I had to pay 800 INR.
I didn’t realize how touristy this place would be. It is. On one hand that’s nice because I don’t stand out as much but at the same time it really turns me off. White western people walking around in their hippie outfits saying namaste to everyone they meet. I mean, come on now.. Yesterday when I was sitting at this cafe with my chai and wonderful view and sun in my face and watching and listening and feeling and being – and this hippie guy comes and sits right in front of me, his hippie legs dangling over the edge of the wall. And then he pulls out a freakin’ guitar and starts to play and sing some improvised ‘hare rama’ song. Could it be more cliché? After 15 minutes I couldn’t take it anymore – “seriously, hippie dude – could you do me a favor and kill the worship, I’m trying to enjoy my life here”. Nah I didn’t, I just went and sat further away – letting him be whatever it is he’s trying to be..
I guess I need to embrace my inner hippie in a whole new way..
Cows are all over of course. Nothing much to say about them, they mind their own business. I have little chats with them about life and love – out of the three, the cows are the easiest to deal with :)
So the day had come where I was gonna leave Delhi – I had wanted to leave yesterday already but I guess I needed that extra day to adjust and re-energize.
Afterwards I hopped on the hoho bus (hop on hop off) soo touristy and I’ve never before did one of those tours even though they’re all over. It was actually okay and besides I only went for a few hours and it was a lot more private and relaxed than the metro..
But then again, most would be.
Then another turist area and shopped a little bit – I must have been home around 7pm and then stayed home the rest of the night, planning my journey.
Cutting through a whole lot of less interesting stuff, I finally decided on taking
the train up to Rishikesh. Getting the actual ticket was a circus and took me close to three hours, in which I got even more in touch with my rather cold and demanding self, barking commandos and questions and NO’s – it works but I wouldn’t want to live in a place where that is the person I would have to be, in order to get through the day semi-intact.
I got the ticket but was on the waitlist. The Indian railway system is a little tricky when it comes to waitlist tickets and something else called RAC tickets. I’m not even going to try to explain it, the point is I was on the waitlist and would have to keep checking my status online and then also go to the station and check the final charts and hope to move enough up the list to get an actual berth.
For irrelevant reasons, I called the cap too late and then it was taking a long time to show up and then finally he parked on the other side of the house so that also took some time to figure out.
I get in and ask how long for the train station.. He say’s about 45 minutes and I go nooooo..! My train was scheduled to depart in 40 minutes and getting through security and finding the right platform would take time as well.
Well, the cap driver embraced his inner race driver and I fastened my seatbelt and then we went all the way through Delhi. It was like one of those video games where you swoosh in and out, avoiding other cars, pedestrians and cows showing up out of nowhere – and all without slowing down. Not even a little.
I was in constant prayer but honestly had a really good feeling, not seriously worried.
The traffic in Delhi is crazy at best and it seems there’s no rules whatsoever. But still it works or at least it seems that everybody are able to navigate the chaos. Now take that chaos and insert a cap driver on a mission. What a thrill!
Sadly, every time I checked the time, it seemed more and more unrealistic that I would ever catch that train. I think my driver felt the same way because he increased the speed for an incredible finale and we flew up at the front of the station.
It was 10.16 pm – 4 minutes before my train would depart. And now it got exciting. All happening at the same time, we hop out of the cap, I pay my driver with extra tips and tells him he is a taxi driver superstar (he appreciated that), immediately a coolie is there, the driver throws him my backpack and he throws it up on his head, they both shout to me to follow him and so we run.
Earlier that day when I was getting my ticket, the security line had been very long – now there was only about a hundred people in it but my coolie ran straight for the scanner while he shouted and pushed everyone. And I just tried to keep up. Through the scanner, throwing the bags on the next scanner, grapping them again and all of it while violently pushing and squeezing and throwing ourselves forward and onwards. In less than a minute we were through the crowd and the coolie quickly checked if I was still with him before he bolted towards the tracks, up the stairs and over the bridge.
I was purple in the face, tasted metal and could easily have collapsed without further notice – but I just kept running. Finally at the platform the train is still there and my first reaction is relief. We are still running though and in the middle of the chaos and near-death exhaustion I wonder why I’m still picking up on that feel of urgency from the coolie as he is frantically trying to push open every door we passes.
Then I realize, the train is moving! Fuck, the train is moving and I’m not on it!!
Since we’re still running I figure there’s still a chance and so I run faster. We reach an open door and as it were in some movie, we jump in – coolie first and then me after. My god, I was dying and laughing and choking all at the same time and hurried and paid my superstar coolie so he could jump off again before we picked up too much speed.
I was joined by the train personnel, they checked their lists to find out which berth I had been assigned and oh horror, I was still on waitlist! All this risking my life and other people’s lives and the lives of roadcows and my coolies health – and then I had no berth! I wasn’t even allowed to be on this train… Poop.
They talked and looked very serious and told me to wait there and then they left and I was standing there, not really sure if they meant that I could stand there for the rest of the journey. And I realized that would suck – I was standing next to the toilets and they were already stinky and it was an 8 hour ride. It took a while and then I got impatient so I went and found them and they checked the list again and talked again and looked serious again. The dilli, the top boss kind of guy was a man around 60, a head shorter than me and with one of his teeth sticking straight out of his mouth. It gave him a funny and very authentic look but no doubt was he a man to take seriously and he looked at me seriously and told me that “you are on waitlist, you have not ticket and there is nothing that can be done”.
If I hadn’t made the train I would have had to take a cap back to the apartment and then figure out something the day after. I hadn’t calculated with making the train and then being kicked off at the next station in the middle of the night.
While we are standing there a man comes out from one of the compartments and realize that something is going on. He offers his assistance and English skills so we at least can understand each other and he sort of takes over. He and dilli decide that I can go sit down while someone figures out something. So I go and sit with the guy and his wife, Deepak and Pudva. Within 20 minutes they’re my friends. They just got married three months ago and now every once in a while they try to take a long weekend and go somewhere. Mini honeymoons :) They tell me to not worry and that in India something can always be done – even when dilli says that nothing can be done.
A guy comes through the train with a sort of metal bucket and we all get chai in small plastic cups while we continue talking. Dilli comes in again and talks to Deepak and Pudva – I guess by then they have all agreed to take care of it without burdening me with the details. They discuss and look serious again, dilli says something, Deepak nods and respond something, Pudva suggests something and both dilli and Deepak talk again, they all nod and then dilli leaves.
I thought that was bad news, that nothing could be done and that I would be spending the night at the next station.
I was wrong. It was all going to be okay, dilli had found me a berth and in a minute he would come back and tell me the number. “But first we drink tea”, Deepak said.
When we had finished the chai and I had managed as a final tribute to my good luck to spill chai on my pants, the seat and the floor, we exchanged contact info and I got Deepaks private+work email and his phone number and was told to call anytime if I ever needed help – he even made sure to tell me his office hours. Then Pudva took me to my berth and made sure I was settled in before she went back.
I’m so grateful for Deepak and Pudva and for those magical moments when everything just falls apart and then reassemble in the most fortunate way.
My berth was in class 3AC, which means that there are three layers of berths (bunks) – on one side of the train divided into six and six and with curtains for privacy and on the other side of the train a single three layer row all the way down. I was in a six’er and in the bottom berth – normally it’s better to be on the top because that ensures more privacy and safety and normally I guess, I would have preferred 2AC with only 2 layers – but I was just happy to not spend the entire trip sitting on the floor next to the toilets or even worse, sitting in some cold station all night.
Yay for dilli and Deepak and Pudva :)
Most of my fellow travellers were already sleeping and I put the sheet on and got situated. I’ve heard a lot of stories about rape and other sexual assaults in these trains so I was staying alert and feeling out the atmosphere around me, trying to determine if I had any reason to be worried. I found no reason to be paranoid and so I read for a while before closing my eyes. Our six’er was right next to the door and so every time someone went in or out, the curtain would get caught in the door and open a little and let in very bright light from the hallway – but in between I managed to get some sleep.
We arrived in Haridwar around 6am and even though it was early, there was plenty of people. I found the bus terminal, which is just a big parking lot area and then you have to walk around and ask the individual drivers where they’re going. The Rishikesh bus had apparently just left 5 minutes ago I was told by a guy, a second lieutenant in the Indian army. He asked the usual questions, where I’m from and so on and then he wanted to know if the women really drink alcohol in Denmark as he had heard. I could see that it troubled him that I confirmed and it also troubled him that I was travelling alone, that I wasn’t married and that Denmark in general seemed to be such a different country. With a deep wrinkle in his forehead he kept repeating “it’s not right”.
Then he asked for my email. And then I lied. For some reason I didn’t want to give him my email address and probably for the same reason, I didn’t want to tell him that. So I lied and gave him some bogus address, embarrassed of my dishonesty and hoping for some universal understanding. He wanted to email me right away and took out his phone and I thought “shit, he’s got internet connection and now he’s going to find out that I lied and then he’s going to get pissed and I don’t even know in which direction to run”.
But he didn’t find out and I lived to tell the story.
Finally the Rishikesh bus arrived and 40 relaxed and uneventful minutes later I was dropped off and hopped straight on a rickshaw to find a hotel.
So I’m in India.. My first impression is that I love it. Or I did love it. Or hopefully I still love it..
It’s dirty, noisy, dusty, smelly and most of all chaotic beyond anything I’ve experienced before. And that’s all good, that’s the part I love. I’ve been soaking up all the millions of impressions that hit me every minute, trying to keep up with this hurricane of life here.
I’ve already met a lot of people, done some sightseeing, shopped a little and went to a movie screening about Varanasi, another place I want to visit here. And it’s just been 3 days.
The thing is, the attention I get is overwhelming. Walking down the street, everybody will stop what they’re doing to look at me instead. Some will join me and ask questions and even change their own direction in order to follow me and on the metro I’m being studied head to toe. I’ve tried to be fair to everyone, placing myself in the middle so no-one was cheated from the sight of me :P The metro is so fortunately planned here that the two front cars are for women only – we can see all the way down through the train though and thus the men can see us as well, and the mens section is crowded.
With this being the center of attention, I haven’t met any real hostility and no bad things has happened but I’ve come to notice the difference in how I’m being looked at, how I’m being met.
The majority I’m pretty sure don’t even see me. They see a tourist, a wealthy European, a white person, a blonde woman, a person they want something from. My money, my time, my love, they just want what I have maybe without knowing what that is, if there even is something to have.
On the opposite side there’s the people who demonstratively are letting me know that they don’t want anything from me. They will look at me and when I notice, they will hold my look for just a couple of seconds and then dismiss my presence with a kind of arrogant attitude. I don’t meet as many of them but when I do the impact is equally challenging to digest.
And then there’s the few who meet me as who I am. Just another human being who happens to cross their path, not yet determined, not yet labeled. They meet my eyes with openness, with curiosity, sometimes with a slight indifference but as soon as we look at each other, I’m being recognized as being me. Nothing more, nothing less. A person who holds all the potential of being either a friend or an enemy or of simply continuing to be a complete stranger. But right in that moment, neither of us know and we simply recognize each other as part of the same family, just human beings who happens to share a brief moment. Whenever it happens, it makes me feel incredibly grateful.
We all do this all the time. We label each other. We put a limit to the truth about the people we meet and by that we limit our world, the potential of our lives.
Even though this is something I’ve been aware about for a long time, experiencing it so intensely here in India has really put it into perspective.
Yesterday it made me sick, literally. I got the worst headache (still have it) and nausea and I was so exhausted and drained that I went home around 4.30pm and then hid out in the safety of my room for the rest of the day,
feeling so alone and sad. All I wanted to do was escape, get out of the city and go somewhere secluded and safe from all the people.
I still want to escape but today I’m going to meet the world again and try to see if I can somehow turn it around. I need to find a way to protect myself without running away. To not let the attention drain me. To allow myself to continue being me.
Wish me luck!
PS – Here’s my neighborhood in Delhi