Life in India is a full-bore sensory experience. If you are near a street, you will hear near constant honking. It is a signal that you are passing or want to pass another vehicle, as well as a signal that expresses disapproval at a pedestrian’s or motorcyclist’s actions. At night, at least in the month following Diwali, you will hear fireworks and even music until late at night, as it is wedding season. Every building we entered and every street we walked had aroma-soaked air. Sometimes the aroma came from perfume or incense or flowers or cooking spices. Sometimes it came from cow and camel dung, and even human waste as it flowed through the street gutters. Your eyes will not want for stimulation, either, as the cities are bustling and the older buildings are richly decorated. Even today, decoration is prioritized in women’s clothing, which is often very brightly colored and embroidered with golden thread and intricate patterns. Finally, you will not taste a bland meal here. It isn’t all hot-spicy here in the north, though. In fact, we had to almost beg for green chiles in Nawalgarh. Maybe they didn’t believe us when we said we like spicy food. The flavor punches come from cumin and turmeric and cardamom and more. I felt like I had as much culinary variety as I have at home, all while dining on only one cuisine. Fortunately, my senses have been delighted far more than offended.
Women have been hardly visible in our travels here. The receptionist who checked us in at the hotel in Agra was a woman. The security guards who pat down women at hotels and airports and public landmarks are women. Other than that, I have seen only housewives, and I have not seen them often. They are in the markets, buying and selling food, or they are the mothers-in-law sitting at the temple. Even at Apani Dhani, we did not see much of the women of the family and we did not interact, other than peeling vegetables for the first cooking lesson. Theo noticed that we have seen no pregnant women, which seems odd to us. When we do see women, they are dressed beautifully, but conservatively in traditional dresses and veils. The separation and seclusion of women and girls bothers me, I must admit, so it was encouraging to see women in Delhi (on our drive to the airport) and more so in Mumbai wearing Western-style clothing, walking in the streets towards jobs outside of the home, and generally just practicing a more modern lifestyle. All is not well for women in these big cities, though, as sexual harassment and assault are still very prevalent. Women’s helpline posters and billboards are visible in many places. As it still is just not safe for women to travel after dark in these cities, a cab company owned and operated by women for women exists in Mumbai.
We spent twenty days in India. Day 1 was a chill day at an airport hotel in Mumbai. Day 2 was a flight to Udaipur and our first glimpse of “real India” as we drove away from the airport and into the city. Day 3 was our first tour and introduction to Indian history. Day 4 began our Rajasthani road trip with our driver and assistant who would be with us for two weeks through Pushkar, Nawalgarh, Jaipur and Agra and its when I began to feel the experience of India seep into my being.
During the first of these two weeks, I often felt surprised by how happy I was to be in the towns of rural India. The air was imbued with celebration, but also our hosts and guides and drivers were so friendly and welcoming. We mingled with fellow travelers as well as our hosts at Apani Dhani - a restorative change from the last few months. We missed another holiday at home - Thanksgiving - but we were filled with gratitude for our travels. In Pushkar and Nawalgarh, especially, we got close to the real lives of people living in India. It’s what I wanted - what I craved - when dreaming and planning this trip, much more than seeing all the museums and palaces and monuments of the world.
Yet during the second half of our Rajasthani road trip, after we got to Jaipur, really, I started to tire and chafe at what appears to be squandered potential. The history is complex and interesting. The people here are hard-working and absolutely value education and intellect. They also value beauty and have such a deep culture of decorative and performing arts. Yet there is rubbish everywhere in public. Private homes and guest accommodations were clean, but these lovely spaces are right up next to open trash yards where cows, pigs, and dogs forage for food. Yes, the cow revered so much here eats trash and dies with many pounds of plastic in its belly. The cognitive dissonance was a bit much.
Rishikesh restored some harmony to my brain. The drive from Dehradun airport to Rishikesh went through a national park in the foothills of the Himalayas. There were trees, lots of them, and I couldn’t help but smile. The gorgeous freshness of the Ganges also really brightened my mood. Our stay in Mumbai brought me full circle, though. The novelty of a bustling mega-city with echoes of New York, Miami and London woke me up to India’s beauty again. Our guides gave us deeper insight into present-day life. Finally, our lunch date with friend and former colleague Asha did my home-sick heart some good. Weeks of feeling like nothing was normal in my life ended with a completely fun and normal lunch of pizza and ice cream and reminiscing and catching up.
I booked these three weeks in India thinking it would likely be my only visit here ever. There is so much to see and we didn’t get to most of it. I knew that going in and thought I was okay with that. Now that it’s over, I know that I’m not. Realistically, I know I may never make it back to India to see the great southern towns of Goa and Kerala, to see tigers in their natural habitat or to ride India’s famous rail lines. The heart can hope, though.