On 4 December I set out on a five and a half week journey in the land of tigers, Hinduism and vegetarians to learn more about the culture, the people and the animals. Enter India. My awesome travel companion for the trip is Josefine.
The expedition started in Delhi where the intensive Paharganj took us by storm and we managed to avoid the first scams thrown at us by the infamous rickshaw drivers and their packs. The incredible bazaars at Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi were a marvel and entire streets were designated only for sarees or cloth and some stores were only big enough to barely fit one person sitting while others were combined sleeping quarters for entire families. Getting a train ticket in India turns out to be a benefit and the que to the tourist ticket counter took us on an interesting three hour wait where we got quite familiar with our que-buddies.
We traveled south-east to the city of Agra where we were at the center of attention at a big Hindu wedding. The party and adjoining parade was hard to miss and was heard throughout the city. We were almost constantly surrounded by between ten to twenty people at the wedding taking pictures with us, wanting us to dance or just shaking our hands and wanting to chat. A visit to the grand Taj Mahal didn’t only let us see the majestic building but we also got the opportunity to pose for more than 50 portraits of men and entire families. Be tourist and be blond and you are sure to have a group of either men or old women with children come up to chat or take pictures of you once every other minute. We also glimpsed the more impressive Agra Fort while in Agra. Via Lucknow we later headed further east i into the vast country.
“She was both my wife and my friend” an Indian man in his fourties tells me as we watch the corpse of his wife burn at one of the Ghats in Varanasi. The Ganges, and especially in Varanasi, is the holiest place for a Hindu to be buried. His 25 year old wife was one of more than a hundred corpses being burnt that day. Seeing this end-of-life cycle has been one of the strongest impressions left on me during this expedition.
Varanasi is known to not be for the faint-hearted and I quickly realised why. The pressing smell of urine everywhere, incense, cows, dogs, cow poo, food being cooked on the streets, beggars and other scammers wanting your money, corpses being burnt at the ghats (a ghat is a stairway to the Ganges) and people just about everywhere are just some of the things that makes this city special. Out of all places in India, Varanasi is the place where you do not want to get your stomach ache. In short, mine came just as the train closed in on the city. Not getting a stomach ache in India is something as unknown to tourists as are honest rickshaw drivers. Likewise it is one of the daily topics discussed with most other foreigners and travel companions. Luckily I was able to recover quite quickly from the worst illness.
After dusk the nighly dew slowly breezed in over the city. We rarely had more than 20 degrees in daytime during our stay. After a few days in the holy city we jumped on a train south.
“Tiger! There is a tiger!” our guide bursts out. We are in Bandhavgarh National Park. First sneaking up behind a large stork the big Bengal cat then prawls past our jeep just a few meters away. The Bengal tiger is one of five subspecies that have managed to survive, four others perished in the 20th century, the Bali, Javan, Caspian and South China subspecies will never be back. Even the remaining subspecies are likely to die out in the coming 30 years since they are poached for the traditional Chinese medicine industry and their natural environments being ever-encroache upon by industries. The park also offered the hard-to-see jungle cat as well as the barking deer, sambar and spotted deer. Yes, the big tiger is a marvel to behold and you might want to try to see one in the wild before they disappear altogether.
Next stop was Mumbai where we got a chance to see the city for our nearly full stop there. We visited the home of Mohandas Gandhi and a Jain temple. The Jain religion is known for being pure vegetarian and anti violence plus for equal treatment of all living beings.
Spending a cold and noisy night on an AC Volvo bus driven by a crazy driver (or possibly the standard of the Indian roads) we finally reached the vast beaches of Goa in the country’s west coast. Spending a full week in Goa’s Arambol Beach was a warm and relaxing experience with people playing drums on the beach, practicing poi and good and varied food. I tried out surfing for the first time and other than this it was mostly a good and relaxing experience (save for Christmas Day when our beachside hotel decided to have a trance party until 3 am). Everybody in Arambol greeted me with “Privet!” and for some reason though I am Russian (the beach seems to be very well-visited by Russians and a lot of store-owners have even learned to speak the language).
After having been soaking warm for a week we got up early in the morning to take an overcrowded bus to continue the adventure.
This page is updated with pictures 2013-01-26. Please see part 2 of the adventure.