I wrote about part one of our India trip while I was still in Asia. We spent about a month and a half in India, travelling to Delhi, Agra, Goa and Hampi, and my first blog post covers those places. While Shane and I had many fun and crazy experiences throughout the first part of our India voyage, i’d have to say the second half was my favourite. The second half of India saw us journey to Kerala and Rajasthan- two wildly different parts of the massive conglomeration of colours, scents, and traditions that is India!
To begin: after our wonderful time in Hampi, we took a night bus to the “garden city” of Bangalore. We were told how wonderful Bangalore was, how clean, modern and spacious it was. A belgian tourist we met said he saw “beautiful women in short skirts everywhere!”.
Our time in Bangalore was short, as we were only in the city to catch a plane. We were dropped off around 5am on a dirty, busy street. I needed to use the bathroom, so I asked around. Often, I found Indian men quite helpful when I asked them for things. The man I asked for the bathroom pointed to the second story of the building across the street. I promptly told Shane where I was going, and entered the building. However! as soon as I entered the building, I ran right out, and demanded that Shane come in with me! The building was full of garbage, and as I walked upstairs to the second floor, there was a man sleeping on an abandoned sofa, and trash and old clothing everywhere. It was also pitch black, so I felt around until I found a squat toilet (read: hole in the ground). I don’t think I have ever peed so fast in my life. I ran outta there. After our bathroom experience, we made our way to the public bus stop to catch a bus to the airport. It’s safe to say we weren’t in the glitziest part of Bangalore, as our walk to the bus stop was literally the public washroom of the city. Men were peeing everywhere, the ground was soaked with urine, and it was so hot and humid that the pee seemed to be evaporating around us. So gross.
The funniest thing about India is the contrast. All morning in Bangalore we were surrounded by human waste…except for when we got on the bus to the aiport. The airport bus was beautiful. It was clean, organized, and just as nice as the public transit in Vancouver. The driving was also quite rational! It really struck me in India that the rich and poor and, clean and dirty, all exist together. Bangalore is known as one of the cleanest cities in India, that being said, there are still parts that make Westerners like us cringe. You can see shiny cars, big businesses, and wealthy people alongside extreme poverty. One image that stuck in my mind was in Delhi when I saw a young family living underneath a stopsign, with a brand new Mercedes sedan stopped right beside them, waiting their turn to enter the intersection (which was also shocking, because in India, no one “waits” for anything). My experience with the toilet in Bangalore, and the giant toilet that Bangalore seemed to be when we arrived, is also not uncommon in India. India has massive sewage and waste problems. They don’t have nearly enough plumbing for their massive population. Hence, open sewers and lack of bathrooms. My friend Emma told me that 1 in 2 Indian people defecate in public because of lack of facilities and poverty.
We flew from Bangalore to Kochi, Kerala, and were happy to do so. Indian night busses are INSANE (think bathroom breaks on the side of the highway, smoking in the bus, double booked seats. Our friends’ bus actually hit and killed someone and the driver fled…leaving them stranded in a random little town). There have been a lot of bus incidents lately that have left me grateful for our decision. Shane and I were not tight on money, so although we weren’t spending like crazy by any means, and were travelling on the cheap, we had some extra money when we wanted to fly somewhere. After taking a few night busses, Shane and I felt pretty good spending a little more to fly longer distances.
When we got to Kochi, in the state of Kerala, we had no idea we were in India. Kochi was completely different than everywhere else we had been. Everyone was extremely polite, the bus was spotless and new, and no one harassed us with tuk tuks or the like. We took a bus to Fort Kochi, an old Portuguese fishing port, where our Hostel was located. The streets were narrow, but clean, and there were cats everywhere. I loved it. My friend Bianca, who travelled India for 6 months (side note: boss), said that when she got to Kerala she cried because it was so nice. Kerala is located on the South Coast of India, so it is hot, humid, and beachy, but not as touristy as Goa. Kerala is known as the most educated state in India. Over 70% of the population is literate, and that includes women! In fact, in Kerala, women outnumber men, which is super significant.
We stayed in the cutest little hostel in Fort Kochi, called Dream Paradise Hostel, run by 2 young Indian guys who were extremely down to earth, friendly, and helpful. They even had a kitten there, with whom I became OBSESSED. I brought it into bed with us, and while Shane socialized on the rooftop, he found me and the kitten fast asleep in our room (side note: Shane would want me to write that, yes, the kitten did poop on our bed, but it was WORTH IT for a snuggle).
The funniest thing about travelling in the developing world is that things we despise at home become the things we relish in countries like India. For example, one of India’s biggest malls, Lulu Mall, is located in Kochi, and it was our mission to get there. Malls are nice places. They are clean, fun, and have bathrooms. In Asia, they also have fun crazy things like roller coasters. We spent all day in Lulu Mall. Shane bought running shoes, I bought female products (things they don’t normally sell at roadside shops), nail polish, face wash, and groceries. I even got a haircut! I had gross backpacker hair that was weighed down by himalayan dirt, salt water, and lack of care. I felt like a new woman after getting a hair cut! It truly is the small things that affect us when we travel. We snacked and ate lunch at the mall, enjoying every minute of being in a clean, shiny, air conditioned space.
After Kochi and Fort Kochi, we headed down the coast to Alleppey by public bus. I remember vividly that Shane made me watch Sharkwater on this hot, sweaty, crowded, Indian bus. I cried. I was upset about the sharks and the fact that Rob Stewart was dead, but also, the daily situations we were immersed in throughout India were so loud, hot, smelly and colourful…an assault on the senses. With travelling, you are like a pourous being, just absorbing emotions, cultures, and scents. Without the distraction of work, family, friends, or home, it’s amazing how into a new place you can get. You become relatively comfortable with being uncomfortable, because all the time, everything is new. I am a really emotional person though, and sometimes being surrounded by so much chaos, without having the ability to go for a walk or a run by myself in the woods took its toll.
Alleppey is widely known as the starting point of the Keralan backwaters and many tourists take houseboats down the vast backwaters of the coast. Our mission in Alleppey was to find a houseboat to share with friends, because they did not come cheap. We ended up at a really cool hostel, Artpackers Life, where we met Ben from Australia, and Matt from France. We shared many drinks and laughs with them, and soon abandoned the idea of an overnight houseboat in favour of taking a 6 hour houseboat ride to Amritapuri Ashram! Actually, Shane decided on the ashram plan for us after I went to bed and he stayed up drinking with the guys. I woke up in the morning, and he said to me “we’re going to the ashram!”.
I had absolutely no idea what to expect out of the ashram. I pictured a small community, modest lodgings, and lots of meditation. When our riverboat arrived at the town of Kollam, where the Ashram is located, a lady on the boat told me I needed to change my clothes, as they were innapropriate for the ashram. I was wearing a turquoise romper, definitely a little racey for India, but I justified it because it was hot out and Kerala is pretty liberal. As soon as we got off a boat, we were prompted to take another small boat to cross the river to get to the ashram. We piled into the boat, but as soon as I looked up, I realized there was a gigantic bridge right above us that we could have walked over. We were killing ourselves laughing. Classic India, this riverboat guy tricked tourists every day by convincing them they needed to pay him to get them across the river, taking advantage of their bewilderment upon arrival.
When we walked into the ashram, we were stunned. This place was a metropolis. There were tall buildings everywhere, and people completely covered head to toe in white dress bustling around. We went to register and find acommodation, and Shane and I were given a private room on the 11th floor of a super tall building for 250 rupees a night…that’s 4 CAD! We walked up to our room and it had a view of the river on one side, and the ocean on another. There was also a sign on the door that said “no sex or intimacy”, which we didn’t really see until 3 days later…as we would learn, there is no intimate touching, kissing, or hugging allowed on the ashram premisis. Guess they shouldn’t have given us a private room with a view? We also weren’t allowed to take any photos at the ashram, so i’ve used stock photos!
After we settled into our room, I changed into my ashram attire, which was a loose long sleeve dress overtop of traditional loose fitting Indian pants. My pattern clashing was out of this world, as I never would have combined such an outfit had I not had to cover every square inch of my female body. In India, Shane made me a rule that I could only wear one item of clothing with a pattern, because my pattern clashing got so out of control. Did I listen? No. Women were even told to wear scarves to be extra modest…that’s where I drew the line- it was too damn hot for a scarf! In fact, when we were meditating on the beach a few days later, I think I transcended simply because I was so hot I was almost on the verge of passing out…seriously.
The ashram was a very interesting place. It struck me as simultaneously pious and charitable, and suspicious. I would encourage you to read this New York Times article about the ashram. Essentially, the Amritapuri ashram is built around guru Amma (amma translates to “mother” in Hindi). Amma is known to heal by giving hugs, the best in the world, apparently hugging over 30 million people. We got hugs, and honestly, I felt manhandled by the anal, posessive followers that surrounded her (sorry, there’s no better word for people obsessed with her attention and good grace). People grabbed my arms and legs and forced me down into her bosom. I would have way rather a hug from my parents at that point, it would have meant a lot more to me than “the best hug in the world”. The ashram brings in millions each year and claims the money comes from donations from wealthy Indians who believe in the cause. The finances, however, unlike most charities, are private, as disclosed by the New York Times. The ashram centers itself around piety, meditation, work, and charity. Amritapuri has been instrumental in helping many world disasters, including donation 1 million dollars to the hurricane Katrina relief fund.
No doubt, the ashram does much good, I, however, could not shake the feeling that I was in a cult (didn’t help that everyone was dressed head to toe in white). Amma has 3000 permanent followers living on her ashram, we were just passing through backpackers. Her followers are OBSESSED with her. They ask her life advice and follow it, and have devoted much of their lives to serving her cause. A blessing and a curse of my undergrad is that I can never see things as purely good, or purely bad…I always see the grey. So while everyone was dressed in white, and seeming to do all good, I saw a lot of stuff that made me question the ashram. It seemed, to me, that Amma just replaced God to many people, and that they deified her. It made me wonder, do we need a God type figure to live morally?
Questioning is healthy and natural, and our ashram experience was great. What made it so fun, though, was the friends that we had there. I remember a night where the lights had to be turned off, but we had nothing to do, so me and our 5 guy friends from France, Australia, Belgium and Germany crammed into our small sweaty apartment and listened to rap music, revelling in our bewilderment at this crazy place. We also met up with so many backpackers we had met further up the coast of Kerala, as they all funnelled down to the famous ashram to check it out. Some of us liked it more than others. I was especially happy to meet my Swedish twins, Liv and Freja. We bonded over the trials of being blonde and fair in India, and the overt sexism and harassment we faced on a daily basis. Man, it felt good to rant! We also played a soccer game off of the ashram. I was the only girl, and I had to play in my kurta (long Indian shirt dress) and Thai pants. I think it was one of the most fun things I did in India. Apparently I was the only girl who had played in an ashram soccer game in 13 years. They told me that they usually don’t allow women, but would if “they could play like you”. I thought to myself that that was flattering, but also, that there would be many more women soccer players were women allowed and encouraged to practice sports! While Amma’s ashram was a safe space for women, she kept to the traditional roles of men and women, but really desexualized both men and women. For me, and Freja and Liv agreed, desexualizing women does not acknowledge woman as the full beings we are. Sexuality is part of who we are, and acknowledged respectfully, leads to the acknowledgement of women as full beings. I found in India two extremes: I was either seen as a sexual object, or desexualized completely in places where women were protected, such as the ashram. Is desexualizing women the only way to protect them in India? I would hope not.
After hot, sweaty, tropical Kerala, Shane and I ventured to Rajasthan. Rajasthan is located in the Northwest, in India’s Thar desert. It is one of India’s most “cultural” states (whatever that means), however, it is also one of the most conservative and traditional states. There are large differences when it comes to travelling in Northern and Southern India. The South is considered easier, cleaner, and more laid back, with better infrastructure. The North is considered a bit more wild, with worse infrastructure, hygiene, and is considered a harder place for westerners (especially women). I did not find Southern India particularly “easy”, as India is a dang hectic place, so I was a little bit intimidated at the thought of Rajasthan, however, It ended up being my favourite place in India where we had the most fun! In India, my advice would be both to LOWER and GET RID of your expectations…just go with it and see what happens.
We flew from Kochi to Udaipur, known as the most “romantic” city in Rajasthan. As soon as we left the airport, we felt Northern India. It was dry, arid and cold (nighttime), there was no English on the streetsigns, rubble everywhere, crazy driving, and as soon as we got to the hostel we booked, we were told there was no room for us, and that we had to move to a different location. The streets in Udaipur were extremely narrow and cow and tuk tuk filled. As we left our dissapointing hostel in search of another one, I was afraid I would get bowled over by a cow or a tuk tuk hitting my large backpack. We were not thrilled with Udaipur so far, but when we got to our new hostel, our room was BEAUTIFUL! It was spacious and built of marble. We had a huge bathroom, a changing room (full mirrors), a coffee table and chairs, flat screen TV, huge wardrobe, accent lighting, and a beautiful big bed (little did we know, the hostel would try to charge us double because they messed up our booking…but we didn’t know that at this point). It was 9pm, and because we were travelling all day, we hadn’t eaten much (well, Shane ate at Burger King in Mumbai…but that’s not my thing). We went to the closest restaurant we could find. It was about 6$ CAD for a curry, which was expensive, but we were desperate. I think it was the best curry I have ever eaten in my life. We had Dum Aloo and Vegetable Masala with hot buttered naan and roti. It made the day a lot better.
The rest of our time in Udaipur saw us trying to navigate the insanely busy, narrow streets. We went out for food, which never beat our first night, and was actually quite oily! The food in Northern and Southern India also differs quite a bit, in the North it was quite heavy and oily (I missed Keralan Dosas). We visited the City Palace, which was incredible. It was the central administrative building in Udaipur, and was built on by each administration. Each section you enter is completely different, they were built in different time periods. We went to a traditional Rajasthani dance show which was hilarious, as well as cultural. It was hilarious because some of the dancing was pretty bad. Shane and I were simulatenously laughing, falling asleep, and in awe when an old woman balanced 8 pots on top of her head. We didn’t love Udaipur, but it could have been the moods we were in. When you travel for weeks on end, you are sometimes in the groove, and sometimes not. I think we also felt “citied out”. It’s easy to just hop from city to city, but extremely draining for active outdoorsy people like us. I just wanted to WALK, and found it so difficult!
Our next destination after Udaipur was Jodhpur, “the Blue City”. We took a bus for 8 hours from Udaipur. I found this bus ride a little strange because there was an Indian man staring at me constantly for EIGHT HOURS. Indian people often stare, and unlike in the West, if you catch someone staring at you, it’s not considered rude. I often locked eyes with him and glared, or would ask Shane to try to get him to stop staring, but nothing worked. Westerners, especially blondes, are seen as celebrities, and super fascinating. People from rural areas often don’t see Western people, and we could have been their first sighting. For example, when we visited the Taj Mahal, which is free to Indian citizens, there were people from all over India there…many of whom had probably never seen a blonde person. The entire time I had men looking me up and down, and I even caught three men filming me!
When we arrived in Jodhpur, it took us a while to find our hostel (classic), and when we arrived we were given the greatest gift. We met our first two Canadians in TWO MONTHS! We saw these two guys sitting on the rooftop, and sat at a table far from them. After listening to their conversation, one of us called over “where are you from?” they said “Canada!”. We delightedly yelled “OMG US TOO!” they then told us to come on over! The whole rest of the afternoon involved us chatting, laughing, and man, were these two the most Can-eh-dian guys we’d ever met! We chatted about music festivals, ice hockey, the quality of Indian…tobacco 😉 . It was amazing. Gabe and Brose turned out to be good old Canadian boys from Winnipeg. They were also travelling with an Argentinian named Clara, it was super awesome hanging out with another woman, as we ended up meeting and travelling with so few of them! The next day saw us explore Jodhpur and zipline over the giant fort overlooking the city, afterwards going to the creepiest Shisha bar ever and all getting bad headaches…while in India!
Jodhpur also saw us meet one of our greatest travelling companions ever, Orlando! After we left Jodhpur, we took a night train East to Jaisalmer. We booked ourselves a hotel independently of the one our hostel owner in Jodhpur recommended we book. Oftentimes hotel owners will have friends in neighboring cities, and try to help each other out with business. Shane and I are pretty strong minded people, and often when people tell us to do something, we prefer to do the opposite. Also, there is no guarantee that someone’s “friend” actually has a decent place. In India, trust pretty much no one.
When we arrived in Jaisalmer around 5am, we walked through the deserted streets. There were many cows and stray dogs who, in the night, become quite aggressive when the streets are quiet. Like in Shantaram, at night, it is advised to stay away from stray dogs…they become crazy. After being lunged at by a few dogs and cows, we made it to our hotel and watched the sun rise on the rooftop over Jaisalmer’s fort, the largest fort in Asia. After settling in, we went for a walk, and tried to find lunch. Little did we know, we walked right into the hotel that our hostel owner in Jodhpur recommended to us, and who did we find but ORLANDO, who we’d actually met in Jodhpur! Poor Orlando had gotten quite sick, and was looking pale and tired, but just as cheerful and lovely as always. After meeting Orlando, we would end up travelling with him for the rest of our time in India.
The hotel Orlando stayed at ended up being pretty strange. The hotel owner was a combination of creepy, cheap, and “friendly”. He asked a friend of ours how to go down on a woman, and after that, Orlando and a few other guys who had also been sick at that hotel moved to our hotel. We spent our days in Jaisalmer wandering around the fort, which is still in use, and filled with shops, hotels and homes.
We then went on the classic Jaisalmer adventure: a camel safari. The safari was pretty cool, except camels are very uncomfortable to ride. We slept out in the desert and I saw the most stars i’d ever seen.
There was one experience, though, that I felt pretty uncomfortable with. On our way back from the camel safari, in the Jeep, we stopped at a gypsy camp, and the tour guide suggested we stop and hand the residents some snacks. I was the first pushed out of the car, and I was swarmed by children and women, grabbing at my me and my clothing in desperation. I was so unbelievably uncomfortable and angry, and I felt exploited. I spoke to my friend Bianca about my discomfort upon returning home. She spent 6 months in India, and understood what I meant. When there’s such a gap in wealth and status, there is no way to bridge it, especially with handouts. The gypsy people lived in extreme poverty, and saw me, as a white woman, as someone they could get something from. I already felt like I was exploited in India by men, and always stared at. The fact that this camel safari put me in this position, knowing how different I would be, and knowing that my entire experience in India had been filled with people grabbing me and obsessing over me made me so angry! Sometimes travel in India can feel ethically challenging, as well as physically and mentally.
After Jaisalmer, we took a 14 hour night train across the Thar desert to Pushkar. We had been told of the Pineapple Express Hostel by some friends we met in Jaisalmer, and after our freezing cold and harrowing night train, we made our way there STAT. Turns out, the Pineapple Express Hostel was a literal haven. We were welcomed by the kindest travellers who volunteered at the hostel. There was a yard, a fire pit, and extremely chill vibes. Shane and I stayed in a small hut, and our 2 night booking turned into a 4 or 5 night stay. We spent our time sitting around the campfire, talking about India, sampling Indian tobacco, and riding motorbikes around Pushkar. We found the chill!!!
There were a couple of incidents in Pushkar, one I would call “the Croissant Incident”. One morning, Shane, Orlando and I went to this little French bakery down the road from our hostel. Our plan was to get some baked goods and then hike a long set of stairs up to a temple. We bought a freshly baked chocolate croissant and threw it in my backpack, prepared to treat ourselves when we got to the temple. A man who had been coming to Pushkar for 20 years warned us about the monkeys at the temple, but we thought as long as the croissant was securely in our bag we’d be safe. WRONG. As we climbed the gigantic steps to the temple, the higher we got, the more monkeys surrounded us. I was starting to get really creeped out, so I stuck by big and tall Orlando. When we got to the top, we looked out over all of Pushkar, saw no monkeys, and took the croissant out of my bag. I took one bite, handed it to Shane, and then the monkeys appeared. Shane handed the croissant back to me, and I looked at him in sheer terror, as the monkeys closed in. Shane told me to “stand up!”. As soon as I stood up, a huge daddy monkey CRAWLED UP MY BUM, UP MY BACK, bared his teeth at me, and you better bet I chucked that croissant. The monkey jumped off me towards the croissant, and all the rest of the monkeys followed. I looked over in horror, at my partner, Shane, for support. Instead of sympathy, he was holding his head in his hands, like a dissapointed hockey dad when his son misses the game winning goal, like a dance mom when her daughter loses the big competition. Shane was facepalming. He was heartbroken over the loss of the croissant. We had a little talk after that about how girlfriends, and girlfriends not getting bit by rabid monkeys, are more important than croissants. Depending on what mood Shane is in, he will still insist that it was the tastiest croissant has ever had one bite of, and that instead of throwing the whole thing away, I should have “torn off a piece and thrown it”. It’s safe to say that Orlando, as our third wheel, enjoyed this incident thoroughly.
The second Pushkar incident is what I would call my last incident of sexual harassment in India, aka the last time I ever went off on my own in that country. Shane and Orlando, wanting the “dead weight” of girlfriends off of their bikes, went off one afternoon on a bikeride. I decided to hike to the top of the temple by myself, WITHOUT croissants. I also decided to walk along a rural road, instead of the main road, to avoid harassment. I was walking down the road, minding my own business, when a young Indian man, walking slightly ahead of me, slowed to match my pace. He started off by asking my name, where I was from, and if he could have my number. I replied “no, I am married” (even though the croissant incident from the previous day made me nearly divorce Shane). He again insisted for my number and I repeated “no, I am married, and I am not interested”. He replied with “Why! Look at me!?” pointing to his face, insinuating how handsome he was. I shook my head, and then he looked at me and said, quite agressively, “will you F*uck me?”. At that very moment, I turned on my heels and literally RAN the other way, dialing Shane on the phone as I sprinted. The man yelled “wait!”, and I ran faster. The scariest part about incidents like this is that the man and I were alone. If something like this happened on the street, I could have raised attention and gotten lots of help. The fact that no one was around made me pretty scared for my safety. I felt pretty depressed when I got back to the hostel, and that day, I was happy we were leaving India. It felt like every time I, or women in general, pushed the boundaries in India (for example, going out alone), sexual violence was always threatened.
One of the last cool stories from India was how we met our friends Jessica and Tashi. During our last night at the Pineapple Express Hostel, we sat down at the fire next to a couple who were playing the guitar. I had a feeling that they were Canadian, but had stopped getting my hopes up, because we met so few Canadians other than Gabe and Brose. Turns out, Jess and Tashi are not only Canadian, but from BC! They live in Revelstoke and Kelowna. They also left for their trip the same time we did (early November), were in Nepal when we were…and get this…were on the same trek we were at the same time! We then realized we had briefly passed them on the trail. We recalled seeing potential Canadians with MEC backpacks, Shane also saw Tashi’s special “third eye pinecone” necklace, and yelled back on the trail “nice necklace!”. We couldn’t believe we had connected with them at Manaslu, and had met up in the Indian desert. We stayed up until 3 am talking, turns out we all ski, love the outdoors, and have a ton in common. Unfortunately we were leaving India and they were just headed South, but meeting them was one of the coolest, most serendipitous things that happened on our trip. We are so excited to hang out with them in BC when they return from Indonesia!
We left Pushkar for Delhi to spend a few days staying at my relative’s house in Haryana. We visited a few malls, but mostly chilled in their beautiful home. We were pretty tired of the chaos of India, and we ready to hang out in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of days. We ended up having a lovely, long breakfast with Ritu, Rajiv and Kasvi, and they stuffed me full, in Indian fashion, before getting on the plane! Their house truly felt like home for me. The room they put us in we had stayed in when we first got to Delhi, and it was a beautiful experience being back there after experiencing India for a month and a half. Their hospitality was a safe place in India, and it was amazing to get to experience Indian home life.
That’s it for India! Next we headed to Malaysia for a couple of days, and then to Vietnam for our next month. Stay tuned for more adventures!