“Thank you Jaipur! What? Yeah, I mean Agra. Thank you Agra. We love you!”
That’s what my month in India with Rustic Pathways felt like- a rock band on tour. At one point my luggage was split between four different cities. Most of the time I couldn’t remember what day of the week or date of the month it was, and I couldn’t come up with any date to help me figure it out. 95% of my meals, including strangely for me, breakfast and meals aboard trains and planes, were Indian food, varying only slightly by region.
Rustic Pathways planned practically every hour of the trip in advance, which meant there was little left for me to do besides show up and take pictures. On the one hand it was nice to have a break from the months of planning, stressing and Lonely Planet binging. But on the other hand, it left me feeling a little bit dazed, confused as to where I was and why I was there. So I finished the month with tons of good memories, a little bit more knowledge about India, and hundreds of pictures of temples, churches and the like that mean little to me.
One of the cool parts of my month in India with Rustic Pathways was that it was the first time over the course of my gap year that I was only with other gappers on the same exact schedule as me. There was Michael from Sarasota, Florida headed off to Vanderbilt next year. Sophia from Boston wasn’t sure yet where she was going. Mo from Miami is going to Fordham, and Felicia from Providence, Rhode Island is going to the New School in NY. Our American guide was a 28 year-old Georgetown grad named Jessemin, and we had a handful of local guides throughout the month.
We started off in Delhi. On our first full day we whetted our religious appetite with a Hindu temple, a Sikh temple and the biggest mosque in all of India. We also walked around Old Delhi, a chaotic, bustling place stuck in some sort of time warp. We traveled by tour bus, auto and cycle rickshaw along the city, getting our first taste of India.
The streets of Delhi are something else. It’s as if they put down the lane markings and traffic lights as a formality, to fulfill some rudimentary requirement of being called a world city in the 21st century. But then once you zoom in and get up close, it more resembles the chaos and pandemonium of a schoolyard lunchroom on pizza day with all the kids rushing the table trying to grab the last slice of pepperoni.
But instead of the geeky kid with the glasses, the chubby one with too many freckles and the beanstalk who hit puberty about three years too early, there’s the three-wheeled auto rickshaws (aka tuk tuks), cycle rickshaws, cows and oxen, men pushing carts, motorcycles and smaller cars. They weave and cut in front of each other not even noticing the lane dividers, many even chancing a suicide dash through the oncoming traffic to make it to the front of the line. And any and every maneuver is excused by the symphony of horns that sound every few seconds. I could be entertained by the streets of Delhi all day.
You come to expect bumper-to-bumper during rush hour on the 405. You expect others to follow the right-of-way rules. And there’s a comforting order in that every time you get behind the wheel. In Delhi, where I see only chaos, an Indian driver must also find his sense of order in it. But it all so completely alien, foreign, terrifying and comical that had you thrown cars, lanes and lights on a (semi) paved road and told me to do it any way I wanted, I wouldn’t have been able to dream this up.
After a couple days in Delhi we took a 12 hour bus ride up north to McLeod Ganj. We spent over a week there, as I detailed in my Seven Days Near Tibet post. We left from McLeod Ganj early one morning for our 6 day, 5 night 31 mile hike in the (foothills of the) Himalayas. I had no clue what to expect, so I imagined trekking through knee-deep snow in an Arctic chill, (and packed accordingly), but it was nothing like that. We hiked through Indian farmland and camped luxury style. We only had to carry our daypacks on our back, while mules carried the rest of our luggage and our tents. We stopped frequently to have a bag of Lays, sip some lychee juice or just catch our breath.
Our lunch break lasted for over an hour, and after having the soup of the day with cheese sandwich and the main course of various Indian vegetables and chicken, we’d relax and nap or read. By the time we got to camp in the late afternoon, our tents were already set up for us. We also had two toilet tents, which consisted of a toilet seat on a little kickstand with a large hole dug underneath it. We had a dinner tent as well that was randomly, inexplicably decorated with Mardi Gras decorations. And we were woken up every morning with a mug of tea or Cadbury’s hot drinking chocolate.
After setting up camp for us, our guides would play their daily game of cricket. They’d yell, laugh, and trash talk in Hindi for a few hours before cooking our dinner. Not that I’ll be signing up any time soon, but considering their job has them working in some of the most picturesque campsites in India, and they got to mess around like little kids, it seemed like quite the charmed life. It struck me that we were the Americans, the wealthiest, most developed nation on earth, but these Indian trek guides probably wouldn’t trade their lives for mine. And although I only I got to see a small part of their day-to-day lives, I can understand why.
Our trek finished at a place called Triund, at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. Going the short way, Triund was only a day hike away from McLeod Ganj, so after a few days of near solitude we passed lots of hikers. We also picked up a pack of dogs from McLeod who hung out with us for the entire time. My favorite was an orange-ish dog who McLeod locals called Charlie. By the time we got up to Triund, Mo, Michael, Felicia and Sophia had all gotten sick. I was the only one well enough to enjoy it. So Charlie and I sprinted the last few minutes up to the peak. And it was absolutely stunning.
We were face to face with these daunting, massive snowcapped Himalayan peaks. And we got to camp out there two nights. While the others tried to sleep off their respective illnesses, I hiked down with Charlie to where the locals were chopping up the night’s firewood. They let me use the axe for a little and carry one load of wood up back to camp. I relaxed after that and clambered up one of the big boulders next to our tents and just sat with a book and my iPod in front of the mountains.
The next day everybody was still feeling sick, so I went alone with our guide Sanjay and my trusty companion Charlie to the end of the hike, Snow Line. There was a fair amount of snow and a little log shack where we stopped for some spiced masala milk tea. (Masala chai was everywhere in India. I was woken up with it in McLeod Ganj, and had a cup of it with most meals throughout the country. By the end of the month it was practically coursing through my veins).
After one final night up at Triund, we hiked back to McLeod Ganj, took a nice hot shower and got ready for some more traveling.
We next toured for a couple of days in Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan. Rajasthan was ruled for many years by its own royalty, called the maharaja. It took a couple years after India became independent in 1947 for Rajasthan to give up its sovereignty and join the new country. We met up there with another local guide named Sudarshan. We went to a fort outside Jaipur where we rode painted elephants.
One of my favorite temples in all of India was located in Jaipur; the temple of the Sun god. On the way up to the temple we passed through a cool looking community devoted to following exclusively one of the Hindu gods. All throughout the community were vicious monkeys. We bought newspaper bags of peanuts to feed them with and they ripped them out of our hands. At the top of the temple there was a view of all of Jaipur. The woman working at the temple gave us all red and yellow bracelets, and I bought a painted, wooden Ganesh (the god of luck and second chances, with an elephant head and human body) statue from her.
We then went to the southern state of Kerala for a few days. We spent a couple nights in the city of Kochi in a mosquito-ridden, hot and humid “hotel” with the showers strangely located on raised tile in the corner of the room. When we weren’t sweating buckets in the room, we explored the city.
Kerala is nicknamed “God’s Country” because even though, like the rest of India, the majority of the population is Hindu, Kerala has sizable Christian and Muslim minorities. We saw some beautifully painted churches, a Dutch graveyard and the first resting place of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, before his remains were shipped back to Europe. My favorite part of Kochi was definitely the small tourist quarter centered around the Pardesi synagogue, fittingly named Jew Town, even though there’s only nine Jews left.
I spent one afternoon there while the others shopped, sitting and talking with a young Kashmiri who lured me into his uncle’s store by asking me about American music. I kept expecting him at any moment to launch into a sales speech, but he was just genuinely interested in talking to an American peer, and he asked me to come back the next day to talk some more. I may have ended up with less souvenirs, but it was a nice break from constantly being yelled at “to come into my shop, no buy, only look,” and the old routine of haggling. I couldn’t come back however, because we were on the move again.
We spent one day cruising on a houseboat, which literally looked like a big house dumped on a boat. We jumped off and went for a swim in the warm river, and wasted away the day solving riddles we found on Mo’s Blackberry. We spent another day on a safari in search of tigers, only ending up with elephants. Our last days in Kerala were spent at our priciest accommodation, a resort directly across from the beach. We hung out there, tossed around a Frisbee and swam in the Indian Ocean.
We wrapped up our month in India with a trip to one of the new seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. We came fully decked out in different traditional Indian clothing we had accumulated. I wore a simple white shirt, burnt orange Aladdin/ MC Hammer parachute pants, black and gold blister-inducing maharaja shoes, and a tie-dye turban I had bought for under five bucks. We took all the obligatory touristy pictures, but then we had a little something extra planned. Earlier in the month Michael had download the dance music video to “Jai Ho,” the song that plays at the end of Slumdog Millionaire. We choreographed our own abridged version and performed and filmed with the Taj as our backdrop. We were ran off by guards once or twice, but I think we were able to get one good cut. And then it was back to a real, more independent world, where I was responsible again for knowing the day and date and planning my own trips. But luckily for me, I got one last meal of Indian food on my flight to Shanghai.