Category Archives: Incredible India

Did You Just Step in India?

Normally when I travel, I live by the rule “Look Up”. Far too often, we miss the beauty around us by looking down…However, if you’re ever walking around in India, this rule is meant to be broken.
Of course there is beauty up, down and all around, but the streets of India are full of obstacles and distractions. There are always at least a dozen, if not a hundred, things calling for your attention at the same time.

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You become adept at using your peripheral vision, and dodging traffic, animals and crowds, all while navigating your way among the unmarked streets. However, whilst all this is going on, remember to look down!! If you don’t watch where you put your foot, you might just “step in India” and it won’t be pretty…
There are many dogs, sleeping wherever they please, without a care…

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And men charming cobras…

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Goats with sweaters…

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Cow pies aplenty, and “holy puddles” leftover from the cows as well…

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Holes in the ground where you walk…

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And trash piles waiting to be burned, or currently burning…

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There are women stringing flowers for holy offerings…

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And many people selling fresh produce…

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Add monkeys to the mix, and you not only need to watch your step, but you also need to watch your stuff!…

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As you can see, if you make it to this interesting country, it will be nothing short of an adventure, every step of the way…

What Happens When a World Wonder Initially Lets You Down?

As we emerged from our hotel into the pre-dawn darkness the air hung heavy and still. The streets were unusually quiet for India and we reveled in the solitude. Mounds of trash and stray dogs lay every few feet along the deserted road as we made our way towards the Taj Mahal.   

The call to prayer started to play eerily, as if on queue, as we entered the gardens which led to the infamous world wonder. Fog, or smog, hung low to the ground, adding to the mystical ambiance. I had a difficult time accepting the putrid, polluted air into my lungs… It was clammy and had a sour taste as you breathed it in, but we walked through, intent on the end destination.
We arrived to the ticket office just after six, and made our way to the separated lines for men and women. Shortly before seven, armed guards popped out from a small door and proceeded to tear, punch and stamp our tickets before permitting us through to the security check.
When we finally got past the main gate and into the entrance for the Taj Mahal, it was completely underwhelming. The smoggy fog hung thick in front of the beautiful building, almost completely hiding it from view. After a head bobble and a chuckle, we accepted that “this is India” and nothing is ever as you expect.

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We continued on through the flower-laden grounds, to make our way to the mausoleum. Each step that brought us closer shed a different perspective on the building. It’s amazing to think of all the man-power that went in to constructing it- over 20,000 people and nearly 30 years. The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his “favorite wife” Mumtaz Mahal after she died giving birth to their son. It’s a shame, because once the place was finally completed, one of the Emperor’s sons locked him up in the nearby Agra Fort, so he couldn’t even appreciate it freely, but rather from the distance of a cell window.

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We had to either remove our shoes or put on shoe covers before we set foot inside, but once inside it was a completely different world.

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It was quiet, and warmer, and smelled faintly of perfume. It was dark, as there is no electricity in the building, so the only light that illuminated the beautiful intricacy of the tiles came from the carved marble windows.

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As we made our way around the tomb and out into the sunlight that was starting to break through the gray sky, a new light was cast upon the buildings before us.

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The sun caught the gemstones inlaid in a floral pattern on the side of the building and sparkled brilliantly.

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I was reminded of a quote by author Roald Dahl which says, “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
To each side of the main mausoleum was a building, brick red and sky high. As we walked up to it, the doorways framed each other, one after another, beckoning us to see what lay further within.

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The tile work was incredible, red and white stacked on one another until it created a beautiful dome above. Pigeons fluttered about inside, and there was a man with his bristle-brush broom methodically sweeping the dust and dropping in the soft morning light.

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As we came about full circle, we were delighted to look out on the Taj perfectly framed by a doorway of the building were in…

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and as we sat there admiring the view, a group of at least one hundred monkeys ran across the open space, taking the area by storm. It was amazing to see such a troop running together, and then in the middle of it all, was an Australian tourist chasing a monkey who had stolen his shoe…

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Eventually I separated from my group in order to absorb the beauty at my own pace, on my own terms, and with my own thoughts. I slowly walked the grounds and marveled at every detail, letting the architectural artwork feed my inner designer and fuel my dreams for a future home.

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I took time to notice every twist of a column, curve of a doorway or boarder of a wall. The place was spectacular.

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As I walked back through the gardens, I tried to imagine the grounds without the mass of tourists that were all around. I focused on the birds flying from the fountains to the tree branches, and the bees buzzing from flower to flower. I was happy I hadn’t let my first impression spoil my ability to look with glittering eyes, and to see past the smoggy morning to the wonder that lay within.

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My key take away from all this? Yes, first impressions can be accurate (for me, Agra is still the city with the worst air in India) but don’t let them get in the way of seeing past the obvious and finding the best in a situation. Whether it’s a person or place, always try to look with glittering eyes, and you will find yourself living on the happier side of life…

One Photo, Please! Meandering the Streets of Bundi, India

When I came to India, I knew there would be culture shock, but after a week of traveling through a few big cities, I couldn’t handle one more minute. I was sick of the filth, the overwhelming poverty, the deception and the greed that was so prevalent in the cities. Sure, I loved the food, the history, the colorful yet dilapidated buildings, but I was lacking human connection. I am a “people person” to my core, so to feel such a lack of trust with the majority of the people I encountered really affected me.

It was right around this time that my travels moved onward to the “small city” of Bundi in Rajathstan. This city of approximately 100,000 people was a breath of fresh air in comparison to Delhi (population: ~25 million), Varanasi (population: ~3 million) or Jaipur (population ~6 million).

From the moment I left Jaipur and started to drive through the countryside, I felt an immense relief. For the first time in days, there was space around me! I passed beautiful green crops, and saw herds of camels making their way across the desert land. It was wonderful.

About 4 hours after leaving Jaipur I entered Bundi, a city full of royal blue houses. Fort walls climb the mountainside where a clay-colored palace is perched, perfectly located to oversee the city below.

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Even though Bundi is “small” it is still packed full of people, and bustling with cows, dogs, carts, motorcycles, and other signs of life, but the difference with this city is that the people are still genuine. When they smile and say hello, there is no ulterior motive to proposition you to buy something, they are simply happy to share their town with a foreigner.

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As I walked the town, exploring the streets off the main drag, I found decorated doors and exquisite entryways. There were many brightly colored and ornately carved buildings. Of course everything could have used a coat of fresh paint, but it was beautiful and wholesome, and I loved it nonetheless.

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The best part of Bundi was definitely the people, especially the children. Everywhere I went, kids would smile and run up and ask, “One photo please??”

They were used to seeing foreigners take pictures of things in their town, and it made them feel special to have a picture taken of themselves. Of course I obliged.

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But every now and then, there would be a little scoundrel who would start hustling you for Rupees after you took the photo he had requested, and that would again put a bad taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, it’s probably only a matter of time until the obnoxious sales tactics of the larger cities makes their way into Bundi, but for now, the city is a sweet reminder of all that is incredible about India.

If you’re ever traveling about Rajathstan, and you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by the noise and the chaos, take a side trip to Bundi. The city’s slower pace will put you at ease, but it’s not so small that it will put you to sleep. In a matter of a day, you will know Bundi, and Bundi will most likely know you. Embrace the charm and share a smile with all those you encounter… Then, when it starts to become too familiar, make your way to Udaipur, with a stop at the Chittaurgarh Fort on the way.

Ways to Make the Best of your Stay in Bundi:
Be sure to climb up to the Palace and the Fort.
Eat a friendly local meal on the rooftop with brothers, Tom & Jerry, or kick back with some non-Indian cuisine at the delicious restaurant, Out of the Blue.
Stroll the streets, enjoy the “best Chai in Bundi” at Krishna’s Chai.
Make friends with the locals, but try to avoid getting head-butted by a cow…

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Same Same but Different

The past two nights I have had horrible dreams with the underlying theme of lying, cheating and dishonest people. The strange thing is that in both dreams I am on my “Indian adventure”, but in my own home town. My current travel partners from India are with me, and I am teaching them how to avoid being taken advantage of. However sometimes, as in my most recent dream, I am still the one who loses to the thieves if it is my own fault for making the opportunity too easy. As I lay in bed the second night, awake with unreleased scream of my dream still fresh in my head, I began to understand what the drama of my dreams was telling me. I’ll explain it for you in a new Indian-English phrase that I have recently learned: same same, but different.

Essentially what these dreams have been reminding me is that although I am shocked by the filth and the poverty and the apparent dishonesty of the people here in India, it is really just the same thing which exists in other places, only here I am more susceptible to it and it seems to be magnified by a million.

India is the seventh largest country in the world with the second highest population. There are at least 40 cities alone with over one million people. It is no wonder why I am feeling overwhelmed. I have just spent the past two years living in tiny Costa Rica, a country smaller than Lake Michigan, with only around 4 million people in total. I am now facing cities with double this amount of people on a daily basis.

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There is good as well as evil everywhere. A wise friend once told me that India will show me whichever face I want to see. If I focus on the aspects which disgust me, then I will only see more of these, and if I focus on the beauties all around then these will become more prevalent. This is really true with anything in life. When it comes to India, I am trying. In a city where I am accosted by swindling beggars over and over I am having trouble with this. I wish there was less of a communication barrier because I would so love to talk to these people and ask a simple question: why? I guess it’s a way of life, and it is their way of making money to survive, but I think that many people on the streets here are taught to put their hand out before they are taught to put their hands to work.

As I watch women with babies in their arms run up to strangers and wave an empty bottle in their face, I realize that it’s not only happening to me. The people of the street approach unsuspecting Indians as well as visitors from other countries. The sad thing about the example with the mother, baby, and empty bottle, is that if you didn’t know any better, you would gladly want to buy this woman and her poor baby milk. But nothing is as it appears here. As soon as you walk away this woman won’t give the milk to the baby she is showing you – she will instead exchange the milk for money. The baby in her arms most likely isn’t even hers as the kids are passed around like accessories here.

I once witnessed one woman approach our group asking for money, and as she was turned down by half of us, she punched the child in the face to produce a more sad looking child as she rounded over to the second half of the group, where she again began to smile sadly and touch her hand to her mouth in the motion of “please help feed me and my struggling child”. At this point I had seen the truth and I knew it was a facade.

However I can’t let these instances tarnish my perception of this amazing country. When you travel, you see things that shock you, but that’s the point of travel- to broaden your horizons, to challenge your what you see as “normal”, and to learn how other people live their lives without judgement.

As I moved away from the chaotic city life and on to a “small city” of 100,000 people, I found myself again enjoying India. I have been told that India will cause you to bend until you snap, but once it happens, you will snap into place. I think I’m on my way there..but until then…I am beyond thankful for the charming blue accented city of Bundi and a little reprieve from the congestion and chaos of the past few days.

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The Sounds of India

From the moment you wake up, even before you open your eyes, you can hear India all around you.

From the bed where I rest my head, I hear voices from the hallway, loud and foreign. Doors shutting forcefully, and causing the rest of the doors to shake in their frames. People washing themselves. The splash of the water, the sounds of people clearing every orifice to start their daily routines.

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On the street, the crowd has only just begun to form. India isn’t a country of early risers, but India is a country of more than 16 billion, so even the “early rising” crowd can account for thousands.

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There is a clamor all around. A bustle that comes with the street. People are walking, and shuffling around one another. Some push carts, full of food- vegetables dripping water, popcorn bursting over a fire, and many unidentified fried objects. Others pull carts, loaded with rock or brick or wood.

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Every hundred steps or so, you see a dog. Surprisingly, I haven’t heard one sound from a dog, but their eyes tell a story and you know they have seen unimaginable things.

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As you come to an intersection, you wonder how there hasn’t been a collision. No one stops until their rickshaw is almost touching the car or cart or motorbike that has crossed in front of them. The intersection is a place where a crash seems inevitable, yet somehow everyone manages to continue on, unscathed.

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The horns are so prevalent that before you know it, they become your background noise. The calls of people however, jump to the foreground, as they approach you, inviting you to try this, buy that, or simply give a handout of some sort- chocolate, milk, money…

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The temples have a sound all their own. The Sikh temple has live music, blaring rhythmically, enchantingly from the speakers surrounding and inside the building. The Hindu temple is cool, calm, and quiet, with the sounds of the people echoing off the marble floors, walls and ceilings.

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As afternoon turns to evening, the bustle dies down again, as India is not a late-night place either. Again, there are still thousands, but in comparison to the hundreds of thousands, this seems tame. As you walk through the market, you are accosted by hundreds of smells all at once, but this is another tale completely…

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There is no official end to the day, but once the streets are dark, there is definitely a “quiet” that comes about. Horns are fewer, as the traffic mostly turns to pedestrians. You return back to the room where you reside, and if you are in the Raj Villa of Paharganj, New Delhi, the sound that will accompany you to your dreams is the sound of the hotel elevator playing Kenny G every time someone steps in to use it…

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This is India.