India Part One

We have been away for almost 2 and a half months now, and this is the first chance i’ve had to set aside some time for blogging. Originally, I had my chronologically natured mind set on blogging about Nepal, however, once we arrived in India, it was hard to feel reflective about Nepal amidst the chaos and overwhelm of such a vibrant and varied country like India! So, i’ve decided to do what my creative energy is pushing me to do, and write about India before I share our trip to Nepal (even though our trip to Nepal was wonderful and life changing).

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Sneaky Peak from Nepal 🙂
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These photos were taken at the beginning of November, just before our teary goodbyes! It was really hard saying bye to my parents for the first time. I cried a lot! Shane told me that his prior travels really helped him appreciate his parents. I would have to agree there!
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Sharon, Shane and Brian at the airport 🙂 ❤

India marked a very special time for me in that it was the first place on our trip where I stopped feeling homesick. We left for our trip in early November, flying from Vancouver to Bangkok. Shane surprised me with an incredible couple of days in Bangkok before we flew to Kathmandu. He booked us a very comfortable AirBNB, and took me to a skybar for a romantic rooftop date.

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Skybar in Bangkok. It was SO HIGH. I got vertigo.

Bangkok was amazing, but it was hard for me to settle into such a hectic place. I also had trouble grappling with the fact that we would be gone for 4 months…the longest i’d ever been away for was probably 2 weeks! There were a number of tearful moments of overwhelm, as I expressed my worries to Shane about not being a good enough travel partner for someone as experienced as him, and times where I missed my family and friends so much my heart ached. He was always very kind, as he had experienced many of these same fears when he first set off travelling at age 18!

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Shane and Jayne in Bangkok!

We met up with one of my best and oldest friends, Jayne, in Bangkok, as she took a month off touring Europe with TopDeck. When we said goodbye I cried so hard, as it was so nice to see a familiar face, a face that was like family. Poor Shane has probably seen me cry like 300 times on this trip (watching the movie Everest on the bus, watching the movie Sharkwater on the bus, after I stepped in human poo in sandals in Kathmandu…the list goes on).

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Exploring temples in Bangkok

After 3 days in Bangkok we flew to Nepal, spent a month there (blog post to come!), and arrived in India on December 16th. It was India where I was finally gone for long enough that I realized how quickly time flies when travelling, and how important it is to let go and go with the flow. India has made me appreciate where I come from more, but has also made me more present in my travel journey. Often in life I find that wherever I am, i’m looking for the next thing. Consequently, learning the art of presence led to a month and a half in India flying by!  To sum up our itinerary in short: we flew to Delhi from Kathmandu; we then flew to Goa for Christmas, went inland to the state of Karnataka to spend some time in Hampi, before travelling back to the coastal paradise state of Kerala. After Kerala, we flew to Udaipur to begin travelling Rajasthan, before our departure to Malaysia through Delhi. This blog post will cover Delhi to Goa to Hampi, and part 2 will cover Kerala and Rajasthan!

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Another shot from Kathmandu, Nepal, featuring our guide Arjun who graciously showed us around when we returned from trekking!

I was pretty nervous to come to India. There were things about Nepal, such as the poverty, pollution, and general chaos, that made me uncomfortable when I was there. I was also extremely aware that I was a first time traveller travelling some of the hardest countries you can travel. After all i’d heard about India, I expected it to be ten times worse than Nepal. I’d been getting warnings about India for months before our trip. I had people tell me i’d get very ill, that I would be stared at relentlessly because of my blonde hair and blue eyes, that the people were intense, that scams were everywhere, and that the pollution and garbage were, as our Australian friend Orlando would say, “off the chain”. Upon reflection, I would say that all of those warnings rang true! But the most amazing thing was that once we learned to accept and deal with the challenges of travelling India, it was totally fine. You learn to politely decline “selfie” requests, and less politely decline when your request is unheard. You learn to stand up for yourself as a woman, and not to put yourself in dangerous situations. You learn to barter, to cover your nose when the smell is overwhelming, to not welcome the attention or conversations of strange men, and have the meanest resting bitch face you’ve ever had when walking down the crowded, cow, and merchant filled streets. For someone like me, who occasionally has problems standing up for myself, India served as an excellent reminder of how important it is to look calm, confident, and like you know what you’re doing (even when you have no clue).

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When we flew from Kathmandu to Delhi, it was the most beautiful flight i’d ever taken. We flew East from Nepal, parallel to the mountains, and had an amazing view of the Himalayan range during the whole flight! Looking down on Delhi for the first time, I saw the biggest city i’d ever seen, and also the most polluted. I saw extreme wealth, in the large buildings and stadiums, and also extreme poverty and overcrowding in the shanty-towns erected on the roadsides in the shadows of the Hyatt. I didn’t feel overwhelmed though, because I knew that that was how India would get to me. I sat back, let go, and basked in the amazement that we were actually doing this, travelling INDIA. Shane and I had our one year anniversary in Nepal. A year ago, when he asked me out after spin class, I couldn’t have imagined we would embark on the wildest ride of our lives together.

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Luckily, we had some amazing help and company at the beginning of our India trip. My dad’s uncle, Narenendra, is from India, and upon hearing that Shane and I were planning to travel India, he sent us a list of family for us to stay with! We contacted Rajiv and Ritu Verma, in Delhi, and they were more than welcoming. Rajiv and Ritu actually live in Haryana, which is the state just to the West of Delhi (Delhi is actually its own small state). After a cab ride to Haryana in Delhi traffic, we eventually entered a gated community with a collection of beautiful four storey marble houses. When we exited the cab, the driver rang the gate and two housekeepers came out, took our bags, and took us upstairs to the most beautiful room we’d stayed in so far. The room was HUGE, with a marble floor, giant closets and mirrors, a flatscreen TV, king size bed, a sofa and chairs, and a full bathroom. We hadn’t spoken to Rajiv and Ritu, and because the housekeepers didn’t speak English, Shane and I found ourselves both confused and delighted by the situation. Their housekeeper, Raju, returned with hot tea and cookies, as well as a phone call from Ritu explaining that she was still at the office, but to “make ourselves at home” and that dinner would be served in a few hours. Dinner, of course, turned out to be wonderful. We felt so spoiled and waited on.

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Ritu, me, Shane and Rajiv after breakfast at their home!

It turns out, as we got the full story, that the top two floors of the Verma’s home is a guest house where family, friends, and business associates stay when visiting. The Verma’s reside on the bottom floor. Shane and I were so lucky to be able to have breakfast with Rajiv, Ritu, and their daughter Kasvi. We learned about Rajiv and Ritu’s consulting firm, Cooper Lybranth, that they started together, and all of Kasvi’s post secondary endeavors. The Verma’s, as an upper middle class Indian family, were different than our families, but very similar. Staying with them was the best start to the Indian trip I could have imagined. They also made overwhelming Delhi a lot more friendly for us. They organized a driver one day so we could see Delhi’s sites, as well as a trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal.

Before we went to the Taj Mahal, we did a day trip of Delhi. I think the attractions Shane and I clearly remember are Quatab Minar, which is an old Muslim fort, as well as the parliament buildings, and India gate. We had a list of 12 attractions to see, but Delhi traffic and crowds got in our way. We left at 9am and returned home at 8pm exhausted. The people and crowds were a lot for us, especially coming from Vancouver, where we can walk 5 minutes out of our backyards, into the woods and have complete solitude. We had many people ask for our photos, we obliged most of the time, but after that day in Delhi we decided to stop taking photos. Most of the time the selfies tourists take with Indian people end up on social media. If you’re a white woman, sometimes you are boasted about or referred to as the photo taker’s girlfriend. Delhi was a big introduction to India, and Shane and I had already begun learning how to safely travel it!

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Quatab Minar
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This was the first time I got mobbed…by schoolchildren
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Ghandi’s Residence!
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At the Parliament in Delhi
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A local celebrity. We stopped taking photos after this one for the rest of our trip.

While we stayed in Delhi, we took a day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It ended up being an costly day, and the most expensive tourist attraction w’ed both ever visited, but it was worth it. The crowds were also hectic, and I caught three men filming me, but the sight of the Taj Mahal was worth it! The Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 1600’s as a tribute to his favourite wife, Mumtaz, after her death (for reference, he had three wives…guess it pays to be the favourite). The Taj is a tribute of the Shah’s love for Mumtaz. The story goes that upon her deathbed, she asked for a great mausoleum to be built, and also, that the Shah never marry again. The last request was supposedly asked so that the 14 children she had with the Shah would be protected after her death (she died bearing the 14th child). Apparently after she died, the Shah went into extreme mourning. When I set my eyes upon the Taj, I felt the extreme grief of Shah Jahan, and saw the Taj Mahal as a rich man’s attempt at grief. His only remedy to his heartache was to build the greatest mausoleum the world has ever seen. Our guide, and many Indian people see the erection of the Taj Mahal as the world’s greatest love story, and I totally felt it when we were there. I would say it’s a hassle to get there, and Agra is not very nice, but in the end it was worth it for us.

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Shane’s photo of the Taj!
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Definitely some awkward smiles going on. While the Taj was beautiful, Shane and I both found our guide a little creepy and overpriced. It was also so chaotic and busy.

After Delhi, we decided to fly south to Goa for Christmas. After Nepal, the freezing mountain temperatures, and the hectic travel, we wanted the beach! Shane and I felt pretty landlocked in Nepal as West Coast kids. We spent a night in the capital, Panjim, and loved it. Goa is the smallest state in India, and was colonized by the Portuguese, so as a result, it is quite Christian with a lot of Portuguese influence. Panjim, especially, had a lot of big churches and Portuguese architecture. Upon reflection, we would have spent more time in this city before heading to the beachy areas.

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Catholic Church in Panjim

We ended up taking a local bus, which run much cheaper than cabs, North of Panjim, to Arambol. We were so happy to be by the ocean, however, we were surprised when we got there to see how busy the beach was. Of course, we had arrived around the 20th of December, peak season, and so were relegated to sleeping in a tent, on the cement, at our hostel. Arambol was a little busy, and at times, creepy for our liking (think trying to find a Bhaba in the woods, finding out he’s fake, and encountering aggressive pineapple sellers in the jungle with machetes, copious amounts of hash, and snake charmers deep in the jungle), but it was the first time we stayed at a social hostel, so it was lovely to swap stories with travellers. Most importantly, we met our new good friend Tracy Elroy (Trace), at the Happy Panda hostel. Tracy lit up our time in Goa, and helped Shane and I through some tough situations with her wisdom, energy and vivacity! Thanks, Trace.

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This was one of the creepiest/weirdest things ever. They passed around a chillum (Indian pipe) filled with hash.
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Me at the train station after drinking 10 rupee (20 cent) Chai
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Trace brought a watermelon on the train for us to share! Thanks Trace, you’re a legend.

We spent three nights in Arambol before heading south to Palolem to spend Christmas. We had originally booked a very inexpensive hostel, and decided to chill out there for Christmas and New Years for about 10 days, but the night before we departed to Palolem, our booking disappeared. We headed to Palolem, with Trace and our new friends Ali and Rachel, with nowhere to stay. Luckily, when we arrived, the owner of the hostel that cancelled our booking had found us a private room to stay in, so we stayed there. It was nice to have some privacy for Christmas, but we only ended staying for about 5 nights.

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Palolem’s more chill, family vibe was better for us than Arambol. We spent many days lazing on the beach, and hanging out at our favourite restaurant, The Found Things, with our friends Ali and Rachel. We also took a motorbike and explored less populated beaches to the North and South. Shane and I also visited a wildlife reserve, and while we didn’t see any wildlife, I got to ride our scooter in the park! The food in Goa was probably the best we had. The curries were creamy without being oily, and fresh fruit was bountiful. We were also able to get luxurious lattes and rich espresso. Coffee is sometimes hard to come by in India, with most restaurants offering powdered nescafe (Shane refuses to drink it).

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One of the sadder things we saw in Palolem. This was our first day in the town, and I had just finished exclaiming “I love this place!” when I found a freshly hit by a car dead kitten 😦 I picked it up and moved it to the side. So sad. Pretty rough treatment of animals in India.
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Exploring on our motorbike, cows on the road of course!

We spent Christmas in Goa, and it was pretty darn different than our Christmasses at home. I really missed my family, the cold weather, and festive get-togethers. On Christmas day, Shane and I got massages, did a dolphin spotting tour with some friends, and then went out for curry with some other friends. It was nice, different, but nice.

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Christmas Day with the beautiful Ali and Rachel!

While Goa is known as a touristy vacationers’ paradise, we did experience the worst act of sexual harassment India had in store for us. It was Christmas Eve, and Shane and I were swimming together when two Indian men in their late 20’s offered to meditate with me and Shane on a rock just off Palolem beach. We were headed to the rock anyway, so we obliged. It turned out that the meditation was a guise for one of the men to distract Shane while the other put his hands all over me when I was in my swimsuit. It was a definite sexual violation, and when Shane and I managed to escape, we were in shock. The man who touched me followed us as we hurriedly swam back to the beach. We told the owner of the restaurant we were eating at what happened, and he was extremely angry. He ran over to the man and slapped him, screaming furiously at him. This was followed by the rest of the beach of Indian people and tourists immediately turning on him and taking turns slapping and punching him- demanding he apologize to me and kiss my feet. I had created such a scene, but the owner insisted that it was necessary to do so. This is how women in India deal with sexual violence: by making a scene. Our friend Ali insisted, as I expressed my embarrassment, that “there’s no such thing as awkward in India”.

I debated whether I would write about what happened to me in Goa. There is no part of me that wants to make all Indian men appear predatory, after all, the ones who defended me were mostly Indian men. There is also no part of me that wants to discourage women travellers from coming to India.  I did want to talk about how women feel when an assault is happening, thought, how we are so afraid to speak up, how we are afraid to call out when we think an act is going too far. When he started touching my hand, my gut new something was happening, but I didn’t have the nerve to say anything. What if he denied it? Did that really count as inappropriate? The man’s actions eventually clearly crossed the line, as he stroked my hair, kissed my hand, touched my lower back, and put his hands between my legs. He also insulted Shane in an attempt to win me over. I was so shocked that this was happening, that he was doing this in front of Shane, who was clearly my boyfriend (I also wore a wedding ring in India). I had such a hard time removing myself from the situation and being forceful. I 100% felt like a deer in the headlights: shocked, uncomfortable, and vulnerable. I want to talk about it because I want to highlight the insecurity that women go through during sexual harassment/assault. Women are always asked “why didn’t you kick his ass?” “Why didn’t you call him out?”. I wish that at that time I had done that, but the answer was that I was scared and shocked. It does not make women complicit when they are unable to speak up, it does not make us wrong, it is the complex dynamic of sudden, unwanted and aggressive sexual advances.

Ultimately this situation helped me find my voice, and it taught me that if I am made uncomfortable by a man, I need to call it right away. I am a very polite person, but India made me so much more aware of not being taken advantage of. This country has taught me to retain my politeness, but stand up for myself in ways i’ve never had to before, and always ALWAYS put my safety and my body first. As a white woman in India, you will be harassed, but it’s a valuable lesson when you can learn to deal with it and avoid it. What i’ve been through makes me sad, but I know that I am supported by my loving boyfriend, my family and friends, and my extremely progressive country. Just today I read a headline titled “Harassed by Accused, Rape Survivor Kills Self”. The article described the gang rape of an 18 year old girl, and how her family was too scared to report the assault “fearing social stigma”. After facing further torment by her abusers, the girl committed suicide. There was also an 8 month old girl raped in Delhi when we were there. Sexual violence is a huge problem in India, and my story pales in comparison to what women face in this country daily. There was recently a study that came out saying that there are 63 million women “missing” from India, meaning there should be 63 million more women. However, due to violence, infanticide of baby girls, and more, the gender ratio is extremely unequal. Since 1994, it has been illegal in India to find out the sex of your baby before birth, as abortions of baby girls became so common.

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Some beautiful young girls who were fascinated by my hair on the train.

Goa was an interesting time. Shane and I wrestled with the incident, and ended up having to talk a lot of stuff out as we learned to travel together and communicate better. India tests the best of people, and travelling together is certainly a relationship tester. While Goa was not as peaceful and relaxing as we hoped, we learned a lot about India and each other.

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Agonda Beach

After Goa, we headed inland to Hampi in the state of Karnataka on our first night bus. The night bus was interesting, involving double booked seats and middle of the night highway bathroom breaks. Shane saw our bus driver pooping on the side of the road, classic India. We were relieved to wake up in Hampi when we finally arrived! Hampi was a 15th century hub, the center of the Hindu Vijayanara empire. Because of this, Hampi is littered with ruins, some dating back to the 7th century! When we arrived in Hampi, it was peak time between Christmas and New Years which meant that accommodation was expensive and not that nice. We stayed in a mud and straw hut that featured regular sewage drafts…but somehow it still had charm! We stayed across the river from the ruins, in the budget accommodation which will most likely be shut down as Hampi turns into a UNESCO world heritage site. The goal seems to be to push tourists into staying in more expensive hotels located 40km away from the ruins in Hospet, so, get to Hampi while you can and stay on Hampi Island!

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Hampi’s landscape is piles and towers of rounded boulders, leading the area to look positively prehistoric. Shane and I spent our days climbing the boulders and watching the sunset, exploring temples, riding our scooter to the countryside, and eating delicious curries. Hampi is a great spot to chill.

Some quirky experiences in Hampi included hearing the ravages of a rabid dog one night, and having two men sit beside me while I was alone in the boulders and start watching porn and staring at me (after what happened in Goa I was very aware of the importance that I leave immediately and find somewhere safe)!  As a traveller, especially a female traveller, India’s “quirks” can be pretty dark, but somehow we move on. I’ve found that if you get weighed down by your bad experiences in India, it becomes a negative place, and everything about it starts irritating you. I think acknowledging that I was a visitor to the country, and that I was experiencing the country’s culture, and social issues, made it easier to take. Had I been planning to live and work in India for a while, without knowing I was leaving, I think the harassment, poverty, and treatment of women would have gotten to me more. After the incident in the rocks, it became clear that I probably should not venture out by myself anymore, which was upsetting, but is unfortunately advised for female travellers in India (I still ventured out sometimes, because I was stubborn, but I stopped looking anyone in the eye, or smiling).

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We also spent New Years in Hampi, however, it was both of our quietest New Year’s eves ever! Hampi is a sacred and holy city, which meant that around 10:30pm, the police came around with bamboo sticks demanding that restaurants shut down, and that people switch off their lights and go to bed. Shane and I cuddled into our bungalow, and waited for midnight to hit…except that I fell asleep and was awoken to fireworks and Shane desperately trying to wake me up! It was still a lovely New Years though, because Shane and I spent it together. After what happened in Goa, Shane and I were both a little shook up. I, especially, felt a renewed appreciation for what I had by my side: a loving and respectful man.

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After 5 days in Hampi, we departed for Kerala. I will always remember the night when Shane and I left Hampi. We packed up our bags and prepared to catch a local bus to the spot where we would catch a night bus some 40km away, in Hospet. We climbed a giant flat rock with ruins scattered all over it and watched the sunset with the monkeys. It is experiences like that that India offers, you just need to find them.

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I’m currently writing this blog from our luxury apartment in Kuala Lumpur. I decided to write my post on India in two parts, so stay tuned for the next part. Kerala to Rajasthan was probably the highlight of my trip, and even more exciting! Ashrams, camels, and deserts to come!

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