Riotous colors, sweeping architecture with an intricacy that has been lost by the modern world, sleek displays of wealth and burgeoning technology. Yet in the same day, images of desperate poverty, a constant scent of manure and sweat, piles of garbage getting trampled down in the street. This extreme juxtaposition will remain my greatest impression of India. What a country. It has it all - both good and bad - and managed to flood me with almost every emotion. Wonder, fear, sadness, helplessness, anger, excitement.
We arrived in India during one of the hottest times of year (May), which meant that my very first impression was one of oppressive heat. Even though we touched down in Delhi in the late evening, it was still around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If we had been planning a trip only to India I don't think we would have chosen to travel in May, but it was a side trip from our journey to Nepal where the weather was beautiful. Thus, there was nothing to do but resign ourselves to triple digit heat every day for the next week and a half, as we explored Delhi and the "Golden Triangle".
The Golden Triangle is a circuit between the cities of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, that is so named because their positions on a map form a triangle, and these locations contain many of India's cultural gems. We hadn't planned to embark on the Golden Triangle but rather to visit Agra in order to see the Taj Mahal and then sort out transportation to one of the hill stations to escape the heat. However, at one o'clock in the morning as we sat in an office at Delhi's tourism information center, the fellow helping us convinced us to travel the circuit via one of their private drivers as our only means of getting to Agra - all public transportation there was fully booked due to a large festival. Whether or not this was true, or if the tourism center wanted to force us into using their services, we'll never know. At that point we were exhausted and in need of a plan. Why were we at the tourism office that late anyways you may ask? Because the police had barricaded the only route to our hotel for unknown reasons. Our taxi driver dropped us at the tourism center so that we could get assistance contacting the hotel and booking something else. Sadly, every hotel we called was fully booked because of the festival. With no place to spend the night, we grudgingly accepted the new plan which allowed us to leave that night for Agra.
Biggest impressions after traversing the Golden Triangle? Driving in India is the scariest of any place I've been (1000 km to complete the circuit gave me plenty of time to develop this thought), India contains some of the most amazing and beautiful structures in the world, and taking tours is not for us.
Let's start with the driving. Delhi has many large modern freeways, but that doesn't mean much except a ride free of bumping through potholes. Lane boundaries mean nothing. Cars drive on the shoulders, rickshaws drive between cars, cars drive straddling the lines, and everyone is extremely close while simultaneously going as fast as possible. When you leave the freeway nothing changes except that since there are no guard rails the boundaries of the road become even looser than before. Though none of this was terribly different than a number of other crazy places I've driven, I think the sheer number of people on the road in India is what made the difference.
On to India's amazing structures. Beautiful, ancient architecture is so prevalent that in some areas it's rather common place. For example, as we drove around Jaipur we were constantly telling each other to look at that fabulous arch, or gate, or tower - sites you won't find in guide books and addressed with indifference by the majority of the public. And of course, the buildings that have been designated as World Heritage Sites and so forth are absolutely magnificent. The symmetry, colors, inlay, paintings and other details make each one a true visual treat and a testimony to India's many skillful artisans. The only downer was seeing graphiti on a number of these sites.
And lastly, realizing once again that guided tours are not for us. I totally understand the value of having someone show you around who can speak to something's historic and cultural significance, and a guide means you won't get lost and may get to see sites you wouldn't have known about otherwise. And yet, we can't shake the feeling that we would rather study an area's culture and history on our own time, and would much rather follow our own schedule. When the tourist information center set us up with our driver, we stressed that we didn't want this to be a tour. We just wanted him to drive us to Agra and Jaipur and drop us at sites of our choosing. The agent insisted that it would in no way be a tour, but when our driver started announcing what times he would be picking us up and where he would be taking us we quickly realized otherwise. And that's how we ended up at a monkey temple we had no desire to visit, and didn't get to spend any time at the Hawa Mahal which was something we did want to see. Not to mention being hauled and dropped here and there in the mid-day heat, when all we really wanted was to catch up on some sleep indoors while things cooled off. Telling him our preferences didn't make much of a difference as he was very set on his plans.
After completing the Golden Triangle we spent another five days in Delhi site seeing, eating, shopping, and eating some more. The food was insanely good and the options limitless as Delhi contains stalls and restaurants offering food from every corner of the country. I think my most memorable meal was a very spicy thali at a restaurant serving South Indian cuisine.
Discussions about food from other countries are usually followed by tales of illness, and our trip was no exception. Justin and our travel companion Sarah had their bouts with a gastrointestinal illness while we were in Nepal and managed to stay healthy during our time in India. I, on the other hand, was fine the whole time in Nepal but succumbed to a GI bug a few days after landing in India. This meant that almost the whole time we were traveling someone had diarrhea or was vomiting. Fortunately no one became sick enough to completely halt our adventures. After all, what is international travel if you don't occasionally have to push on while fighting waves of nausea, keeping a roll of toilet paper near and dear? However, the one illness we had no intention of coming down with was malaria. A quick visit to a travel clinic before we left set us up with prophylactic doxycycline, which we faithfully took daily while in India. What a breeze compared to taking uncoated chloroquine! If you've ever had to do that then you know exactly what I mean.
While most of my impressions of India were very good, the most notable unpleasant impression was a general sense of displeasure at our presence. I say this carefully, highlighting that this was just the vibe that we felt and may not have been how anyone felt about us. Furthermore, we only explored a small portion of India so we don't have a lot of experience to base that impression on. At any rate, this was how we felt at the end of our stay. And here's the deal: we always strive to be very respectful of other cultures and India was no exception. Despite the intense heat Sarah and myself always wore loose, ankle length clothing and kept our upper bodies completely covered--no bare shoulders, backs, or exposed chests. We removed our shoes and covered our heads in temples, didn't walk around with cameras out, avoided photographing people without permission, never pestered anyone for directions... really we just stayed as unobtrusive as possible. We hate to stick out more than we already do. Yet we were frequently met with scowls, long intense stares that felt more hostile than curious, were never engaged in conversation, and never even got a single kid to return our smiles. Anyways, we intend to return to India to challenge this impression and hopefully replace it with a better one. And we challenge you to go to India so you can build your own impressions of this fascinating country. Bon voyage.