psychology 201: as much you can

It’s now been four whole days since we walked across the border from India to Nepal, and I’m struggling to find words to describe India. The cliche truth is, you can’t understand it until you’ve experienced it.

Early on in our journey we stopped in Rishikesh for a week to stay at a yoga ashram. Rishikesh, by the way, is the place where The Beatles came to study eastern transcendental meditation practices. Their stay in India influenced some of their music thereafter (The White Album, Abbey Road). Jessie had been taking yoga classes in Korea for several months leading up to our departure, so we decided it would be nice for us to try it together with instructions in English!  Our friend Jody had spent several months in Rishikesh for a yoga instructor certification course and recommended the beautiful ashram to us.  We had a great teacher, Ravi, who dealt carefully with my weak back and Jessie’s tight hip flexors but also pushed us to become more flexible in these areas. Ravi has a glowing smile and a voice that cascades like the Ganges that flows outside the yoga studio. Several times during each session I’d find myself hunched over in a very awkward position, astonished at how inflexible certain parts of my body are, and he’d tell me to try to make my back and legs completely straight…adding after a short pause in his distinctive lilt, “As much you can.”

As much you can. That phrase has stuck in our minds and we’ve joked to each other quite frequently during our India adventure to do things “as much you can.”

Ravi yoga

We experienced so many emotions, ups and downs, on a daily basis in India. Just walking down a street in anytown India you see so much.  You’re forced to weave your way back and forth through crowds of people walking in every direction at every moment. Pedestrians, motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, taxis, cows with massive pointy horns, ice cream vendors and miniature trucks packed twice their height with bundled up bags of mystery merchandise vie for every inch of pavement on the roads as well as the sidewalks. They incessantly honk their horns or yell out what sounds to my English-hearing ear as “The side!” at every hour of the day and night. When you do find a brief stretch of open cement to walk upon, you still have to navigate your feet around the mounds of cow, goat and dog dung. There are just people EVERYWHERE. Even in the remotest places in the country, when you think no one is around and you pause to have a tinkle, there is always someone just behind the next bush. Especially as a foreigner, it seemed that no matter where I was there were always at least three pairs of eyes on me, if not a hundred.

crowded Indian street

Several scents compete for your nostrils. The cumin and curry odors from fresh samosas make you salivate while the sicky sweet smell of condensed milk balls being fried in ghee and dropped in sugar syrup baffle your stomach. Souring milk knocks you out as you walk past huge chunks of paneer (Indian unfermented cheese) in cheese cloth that are being pressed down by heavy flat rocks; they drip their vinegary, milky water down into the alley. Ginger, garlic, saffron, coriander, mint, lemon, onion, cardamom and masala spices dance in and out of your nose, then are swept away with a passing blast of motorbike exhaust. On each corner you grimace as you catch the ever familiar scent of urine coming from the public, unsheltered urinal stalls. Doesn’t matter; most guys don’t use them. You can’t walk ten minutes without seeing some guy pull up to a building and start weeing. You try to give that guy a wide berth as you pass him…as much you can.

policeman peeing

As you shift your body to avoid being run over by a passing man-powered lorry, you fumble to not stop on the merchant and his wares that are strewn over a worn red blanket before him on the ground. Shops line the street for miles, each offering the exact same items as the previous hundred. Their storefronts can barely manage two people walking shoulder-to-shoulder through the entry, but many extend back from the road a hundred feet. As you pass them, trying not to make eye contact, the shop owners call out to you, “Hello! Yes, sir! You want to look my shop? Good prices. Many things for you. Come look, make your eyes happy.” We just shake our heads, smile and say, “No thank you.” Undeterred, many follow you down the block for the next two minutes trying to convince you that you need to drink chai with them and see their shop. They shake your hand but then won’t let go while they play twenty questions. It’s always the same questions: My friend, where are you from? Ah, America! What city in America? California, New York, Washington? How long you stay in (insert present city name)? When you come here? How long you stay in India? What cities you see? What is your job in America? What is your good name? Is this your sister, friend, wife? Oh, very lucky man! Where you go now? You want to look my shop? Why no?

Jaipur shop

Eventually they give up and leave you to your peace. This peace is immediately fractured by an auto rickshaw driver motioning for you to get into his tuk-tuk and demanding to know where you are going, despite the fact that you just keep walking and saying, “No. No. No. No.” As he drives slowly to keep up with your pace, you’re suddenly tripped up by a small straggly looking child who is repeatedly making the ubiquitous motion of holding her hand outstretched, palm upwards, fingertips pressed together, then quickly bringing this gesture up to her mouth and back, signifying that she’s hungry.  It’s accompanied by a pitiful yet determined expression and some hardly recognizable words, “Please sir! One rupee! One chapati (cheap pita-like bread)!” Over and over and over. The beggar children will often follow you for whole street blocks. Sometimes they’ll be joined by their parents or other children. It’s hard to see so much need in their eyes and know that you can’t possibly give to everyone who asks.  It is typically more effective to support local holistic empowerment programs, so usually we smile at them and say hello, but shake our heads no.  Those asking for money and food were not actually as numerous as we expected.  Probably not even as prevalent as the street pee-ers.  Still, at each encounter as you are walking away and telling them no, it’s hard keeping your heart from flaring up in anger. Anger that these people won’t leave you alone. Anger that you feel guilt and shame because you have everything and this person has nothing. Anger that the government does so little to help their own people. You suppress it, swallowing it together with a bite of hopelessness…as much you can.

You look up and see a tangle of electricity wires extending everywhere overhead. People stare out of glassless windows at all the bustle below. If you look beyond them you start catching glimpses of huge temples or mosques or municipal buildings that have been carefully and intricately carved down to the last elephant or warrior sculpture. These buildings are so grand, their architecture is so amazing. I’ve previously posted an article with many large pictures of them, which you can access by clicking here. At the same time, they are everywhere, like the people. After weeks of visiting this temple and that temple, you start to walk by them with just a cursory, uninterested glance.

Some days you wake up and are bursting to get up and out there into the manic energy of the street. Other days you want to stay in bed and hide under the blankets. When you’re out, there’s an internal pull to keep walking, a desire to see what unique sight you’ll find just around the next corner, and the next. It competes with the desire to escape the madness, the tragic, the uber-complexity of caste and overpopulation that causes all this desperation.

Finally you duck into a restaurant or go back to your guesthouse. For a while you can relax and let your guard down. You can breathe easy and not have to think about what the popular t-shirt sold everywhere in India says: No rickshaw, No one rupee, No chocolate, No hashish, No change money, No problem. You unwind. As much you can.

You begin to feel that everyone you meet, both menacing and friendly, is only interested in squeezing money out of you. But this is a mistake. Many times people just want to help you because they can see you are a foreigner. We met lots of men, women, children and families who just wanted to shake our hands or snap a quick picture with us (blog post here). The kids laugh with glee and jump up and down with excitement just to shake hands with us. We were continually offered chances to go look inside people’s houses or to go with them to their villages. The few times we took them up on these offers we were never asked for money.

We met so many lovely, vibrant, talkative, colorful, helpful people along the way. All the taxi drivers who surrounded us and waited with us for our massively delayed night bus in Delhi (blog post here). Our dear friends at Mahatma Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh. Vinod at Milkman Guesthouse in Pushkar. The returning Indian expatriate from Germany in the German bakery in Udaipur. Lokesh and his wife, who taught us how to make delicious Indian food and gave us excellent restaurant recommendations. The rickshaw driver who drove us to our hotel in Jodhpur in the middle of the night, and when we couldn’t find the entrance, banged down doors all over the neighborhood until we got in safely. Delroy and Chito and the whole Trotters Camel Safari crew, who made us feel at home from minute one. The teenagers in Khajuraho who walked with us from one end of town to the other, talking and laughing and smiling the whole way. And countless others who supplied us with our needs, wants and unwants.

Khajuraho teens

I’m still mulling all these experiences over, and will for years to come. It’s why I started this blog in the first place: to have an avenue for expressing, remembering, grappling with, re-visioning and sharing all the experiences I’ve learned while traveling. I hope you get something good out of reading it too, reader. As much you can.

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architecture 100: India’s amazing buildings

Looking back at my past blog posts, I realize that I tend to write quite a bit…most posts easily cross the 1200 word mark. But this time I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves. Northern India has a rich and diverse history that is reflected in its architecture, both old and new. Here are pictures of some of my favorite buildings. I hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I have.

India Gate - New Delhi

India Gate – New Delhi

Hindu Temple - Laxman Jhula, Rishikesh

Hindu Temple – Laxman Jhula, Rishikesh

Baha'i Lotus Temple - New Delhi

Baha’i Lotus Temple – New Delhi

Jaisalmer Fort - Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer Fort – Jaisalmer

Monkey Palace - Jaipur

Monkey Palace – Jaipur

Wind Palace - Jaipur

Wind Palace – Jaipur

Jaswant Thada - Jodhpur

Jaswant Thada – Jodhpur

Red Fort - Old Delhi

Red Fort – Old Delhi

Jag Mandir - Udaipur

Jag Mandir – Udaipur

Amber Palace - Jaipur

Amber Palace – Jaipur

Mehrangarh Fort - Jodhpur

Mehrangarh Fort – Jodhpur

ISKCON Hare Krishna Temple - New Delhi

ISKCON Hare Krishna Temple – New Delhi

Akshardham Temple - New Delhi

Akshardham Temple – New Delhi

Taj Palace - Udaipur

Taj Palace – Udaipur

Patwa Haveli - Jaisalmer

Patwa Haveli – Jaisalmer

Jantar Mantar - Jaipur

Jantar Mantar – Jaipur

Sandia Ghat - Varanasi

Scindia Ghat – Varanasi

West Temple Group - Khajuraho

West Temple Group – Khajuraho

Taj Mahal - Agra

Taj Mahal – Agra

anthropology 100: in India we are the spectacle

In India we are rock stars. Maybe it’s because we look relatively young. Maybe it’s because we smile a lot. Maybe it’s because we’re American (people’s eyes light up especially bright when we tell them we’re from USA because there aren’t many Americans traveling here). Maybe it’s because we don’t brush people off or ignore them like we witness so many other foreigners doing. Definitely it’s because we have white skin. But mostly, I think it’s because everyone loves our sunglasses, despite the fact that they’re knock-offs we bought in Thailand for a few bucks. We get at least ten comments on them each day. People keep trying to trade or even offer to buy them from us. Finally, one guy explained to us that they make us look like Bollywood actors.

Wind palace - sunglasses

True, when we walk down the street people get dollar signs in their eyes and try every angle to get money out of us. Flattery is usually their first resort. But this is different. When we enter paid sights where the touts and vendors can’t follow, such as forts, museums and temples, the attention doesn’t stop. Indians flock to us like paparazzi stalking their favorite socialite.

Jessie photo op

We try to walk from one exhibit to the next, but inevitably we’re stopped at least once every minute. “Sir, madam…please one photo okay?” We smile cooperatively as parents force their children into our arms or onto our laps in order to get that priceless snap with their ‘foreign friends.’ Groups of twenty-something males mob us, each taking a turn to stand between Jessie and me (or often, just with Jessie). I’m not exaggerating when I say that we routinely stand for 5~10 minutes in one spot as giant groups of giggling bachelors jump in and out of photos with us.

DSC_0462

On our trip to Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur we were getting so many requests for pictures that I began feeling claustrophobic, my heart began racing, and I had to go outside so I could breathe. Thirty seconds after I’d sat down on a bench with my head cradled miserably in my hands a guy came up to me and unwittingly asked for “one picture please.”

It feels strange getting this ridiculous amount of attention. Especially when you consider that we’re wearing dumpy, baggy, faded clothes and sweating like pigs. But it’s as if these things are invisible in the locals’ eyes. Whatever they see in us, it seems that we are infinitely more interesting and cherished by them than the spectacular sights they’ve come from miles around to see.

A few days ago we spent two hours of a long train ride talking with a train car full of young Army commandos. They were so excited we were in their coach that 12 men squeezed into a sitting area made for six in order that they could all stare at us and hear our conversation with those of them who could speak English.

BSF India Army Commandos

Eventually their squad leader came over and told them they were the next stop, so they had to get ready to disembark. They stood up and dug around in their gear and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the sitting area became stacked with AK-47s. They smiled widely as they showed us how the banana clips and safeties on the guns worked, posed for pictures for us and even insisted that we take pictures holding their weapons. All this on a public passenger train. Jessie and I kept shaking our heads and thinking, “Where else in the world could this happen?” Their squad leader was obviously NOT happy about this behavior, but still they were falling all over themselves to impress us. Us… two average people from middle class Midwest families with no claim to any sort of fame. And they couldn’t get enough of us.

AK

We foreigners come to India desiring to capture images of the men and women in all their beautiful brightly colored clothes doing their daily routines, but Indians seem just as eager to get a great picture of tourists. For every foreigner trying to sneak a picture here, there are handfuls of Indians boldly stopping them to snap pictures with their mobile phones. It’s a fascinating reversal that highlights the fact that both tourist and local romanticize the idea of the other.

But honestly, no joking at all, I think the sunglasses are responsible for at least 75% of our popularity.

jaisalmer dunes

We’ve had the whole range of experiences in the past six weeks, from the wonderful to the horrifying. But one thing is for sure: India is good for the ego, as long as you can take the smothering that comes along with it.

mehrangarh guys

psychology 300: the concept of time in Indian transportation

If you’re ever in India and need to travel by bus and think that you’re really smart and can book your bus tickets online, thereby foregoing the travel agent fees, then I’ve only one thing to tell you: get ready for an adventure! Jessie and I are pretty competent travelers and we usually opt to figure out transport on our own. However, after getting burned twice with online bookings, we decided it was worth the extra fees to book bus travel through travel agents. (And honestly, the fees were only like a dollar extra anyway.)

dodgy old bus

We weren’t planning to take buses in the first place, though. Three days after we’d arrived in Delhi we realized that there was no way we were going to get a seat on the train up to Rishikesh at such short notice. It’s not like Thailand, where you can walk into the station an hour before your train and get a seat or sleeper berth. So we found this website called ‘Make My Trip’ (I’ve not included a hyperlink here because India’s chaotic and unpredictable bus system has no business trying to sell orderly, scheduled tickets online), and booked an overnight sleeper bus.

The stated departure time was 8:45pm, but the ticket warned that we should arrive at least 15 minutes before just in case the bus arrived early. Looking back now after almost 6 weeks of travel in India, I’m laughing hysterically at this notion! Early? Who are you kidding?!

waiting for the bus

Of course, to be extra sure we made the bus we arrived super early. At 8:00 we found the pickup point at Ram Krishna Ashram Marg Metro Station Gate 2. That’s a mouthful, huh?! The gate was at the end of a wide lane with no exit that was choked full of parked auto rickshaws and street food stalls. We wondered how a giant sleeper bus would be able to come down the lane and reverse its way back out, but hey it’s India and we’d already seen about a thousand miraculously near calls and eekings by within the ten minutes it took for us to walk from our hotel to here, so why not?

waiting for a break in the traffic

It was very dark and so many people were coming and going through the metro gate. We waited patiently until 8:45. When no bus came I found the text message with our e-ticket and called up the service number. The operator only spoke Hindi, so our conversation consisted of me saying “Hello! English please!” and the operator saying “Yes, hello?” and then speaking something I couldn’t understand.

Talking on the phone in India is always difficult because Indians answer their phones by saying “Hello?” And when you say “Hello!” back they automatically assume you’re Indian and so they speak rapidly in Hindi to you. Sometimes it takes a considerable amount of time just to get them to realize you are speaking English!

The operator hung up on me and my mood turned from apprehensive to flabbergasted. At this point some of the people around us must have seen the exasperated looks I was giving as Jessie and I talked about our options. A well groomed young man stepped up and asked in almost crystal clear English if he could help us. I shoved my phone at him and asked him to talk with the operator. The operator gave him the bus driver’s cell phone number. He called the bus driver. The bus driver said he was running 30 minutes late but that he couldn’t pick us up at gate 2. We had to meet him at gate 16. Great! We asked around to some of the shop owners where we could find gate 16. They looked at us as if we were crazy and told us there were only 5 gates for this station.

Our new friend got back on the phone to the driver and figured out that we weren’t supposed to meet him at gate 16, but pillar 16. You see, outside the Ram Krishna Ashram there’s a four-way intersection. Over the intersection there’s a highway, which is supported by pillars. Each pillar has a large black number on it. And one of those pillars presumably had a giant number 16 painted on it. So he led us away from the metro station down some back alleys where garbage was piled high along the road and rats chased each other in plain sight. Our hearts were racing as we side-stepped huge cow patties and murky puddles from the day’s rain. Jessie and I both felt super uncomfortable, but what else could we do? We held our bags tightly to ourselves and slid out onto a slightly busier road. We found pillar 16 under the highway in a dark, sketchy looking area with hardly any traffic. Our friend told us to wait there and the bus would be coming down the street to get us in 20 minutes. Then he left us.

A pig at a bacon factory couldn’t feel more conspicuous. (That’s right, I made that one up all on my own!)

tired rickshaw puller

“This can’t be safe. This is stupid, right? Is this stupid? Yeah, this is stupid. How much longer should we wait?”

Half an hour passed. No bus. We were hot and tired from standing for 1 1/2 hours now with all our luggage hanging from our bodies. But the only other option we could see was checking back into our hotel and going through this again tomorrow. That also seemed like a terrible idea. A man with a red turban and a comedically high-pitched voice walked up and asked us what we were doing standing there. As we explained our situation to him, more men gathered around us until we were completely surrounded. Instinctively my hands curled up into fists at my side, even though my head told me that it was going to be alright. Jessie and I exchanged a look and a little nervous laughter. The man asked to see our bus ticket. We had no paper ticket, just the one on our phone, so I tentatively handed it over to him. He immediately called up the operator. As he joked around with the bus driver the other curious guys around us were leaning in over our shoulders and trying to find out, all at the same time, what was happening. It transpired that they were taxi drivers and that the lot behind us was a parking lot that they parked in overnight while waiting for call outs. We were so relieved, and ironically enough, now felt safer knowing that this endearing mob of drivers understood our dilemma and had our backs.

“Ten minutes.” He handed the phone back to me and said the bus was delayed in a traffic jam.

creative ride

Around 9:30pm two French women walked up and asked if this was where they could catch the bus to Rishikesh. “Yes!” we almost screamed, relieved that other foreigners had been directed to this unmarked location as well. How they knew to show up in this place 45 minutes after the scheduled departure time baffled me. But just then, before I could ask, I received a phone call from someone who could speak English and who’d been instructed to notify me that the bus would be arriving in about another 10 minutes. It seems that no matter how often you call, the bus is always ‘just 10 minutes away.’ So we all waited: two sweat-drenched exhausted Americans, two lovely old French ladies, and a mob of giggling Indian taxi drivers.

The bus never came. Instead, they sent a minivan to pick us up and drive us an hour outside the city to a less crowded bus station. We got on our bus around 11:15pm. It had no sleeper units. But, it did have air conditioning (which ended up dripping from the ceiling and raining on Jessie all night long until we had to put up an umbrella over her…picture that!). The driver seemed nowhere near ready to leave. Thirty-six expectant faces stared at him, silently pleading with him to get going. But he still had five open seats to fill, and by gosh he was going to fill them. He kept darting outside the door, dragging people up into the bus, and having some kind of altercation with them, which usually resulted in the people exiting the bus. But eventually at 12:15am, four hours after the time we were asked to be ‘promptly’ waiting for our bus, there was a pair of cheeks in every seat and the bus roared to life. As the driver made our way to Rishikesh, honking at anything that moved and swerving every two seconds in pointless attempts to avoid all the unavoidable potholes, I just had to smile.

In the chaos and absurdity of it all, I had the first thought flicker somewhere in the back of my mind that maybe I could fall in love with this country. It’s unexplainable, I know. But that’s what I thought just then.

petrol station

Since that ridiculous first bus journey, we’ve had three more bus rides. Only one of them was another complete fiasco. The other two departed reasonably according to schedule (about a half hour late), and only one of them took five hours to complete a 3-hour trip because the driver insisted on stopping for half hour breaks at three separate roadside stalls. The rest of our trip has been, and will be, by train (cue sounds of rejoicing!).

The lesson we learned about transit in India is this: if you’re booking buses make sure to buy a Costco-sized bottle of extra strength tums…you’re gonna need them. Alternatively, we’ve had great success booking train trips online.* The booking website for train travel is www.cleartrip.com. You should book your whole trip well in advance and all at once. Then the only hassle you’ll have is needing to change platforms at the station when the announcer calls out that your train has been switched from track 2 to track 5, and then once you get over to track 5, back to track 2.

 

* An unfortunate quirk about booking train or bus travel online is that it’s next to impossible to do until you’ve entered the country and obtained a registered Indian mobile number. You must have this in order to proceed to the payment page of the websites. I’ve read that you can work around this through emailing the company with a copy of your passport information page, but it sounds like not many have had success with this method.

India train 2 tier AC

photography 100: taking sneaky pictures in India

It’s been awhile since we’ve felt inspired to take any photos with our Nikon DSLR.  This stunning country has given us a good reason to pull out our camera.  We feel rusty but it’s also been good.  Jessie decided to write down some thoughts about why travel photography can be a challenge:

When you travel through India, every twenty seconds you will stumble upon a picture worthy scene.  It can be overwhelming.  If you’re not careful, it’s easy to start feeling panicky about the photo opportunities you’re missing, or to walk around with your camera permanently attached to your face.

Jaipur

When I travel, I often wish I had the skill and talent of a professional photographer.   When I take a photo, the composition I imagine in my head is often different from what I actually capture.  The most frustratingly elusive skill for me has always been how to photograph candid photos of strangers on the street.   I feel like a creeper trying to catch close-ups without being detected.  But I’m usually a pansy about asking permission to take a photo, and even when I build up my courage, often the charm of the photo is lost because of the subject’s self-conscious awareness of me and my big camera.

Udaipur 2

Most of the articles I’ve found online about capturing candid photos have been largely useless.  I did come across this article which talked about some methods I’ve tried before and had a few new ideas I thought might be worth trying :  http://www.yanidel.net/gear/13-ways-to-shoot-candids/

Rishikesh 2

One critical thing I’ve learned is that my desire and energy for taking photos comes in waves.  I enjoy my days more if I allow myself to follow that ebb and flow.   Some days I feel motivated to keep the camera wrapped around my wrist and brave about taking those sneaky shots.  Sometimes I’m lucky and catch something great.   Other days taking photos causes me anxiety and those days I’ve learned to let myself leave the camera packed away.  I’ll be sure to see incredible things every 20 seconds as usual but without the concern of capturing those moments, I simply live in them and often enjoy them more, knowing that they are fleeting and won’t be documented.  And that’s an important piece of travel and an important piece of life.

Rishikesh pujaUdaipur 3UdaipurJodhpur