India–Land of Extremes

Bob Travels to India

temple in India

The Parmarth Niketan Ashram

The journey to India from the Dominican Republic spans two to three days, depending on flight connections. We decided to break the trip into three sections, prolonging our arrival in Rishikesh. In total, the journey lasted three days.

Once in Delhi, we realized that our hotel didn’t accept check-ins after 10 pm. As it was close to 1 am, we needed to adjust. With bags in tow, we set off to find a taxi in hopes of securing a hotel room. That is when the lessons began. Not knowing the best way to hire a taxi in Delhi, we headed for the curbside. Immediately a number of local men approached us to take our luggage and lead us to a taxi. They loaded our bags and waited for a tip. The driver asked what amount of money we wished to spend for a room, then proceeded to drive us to a very sketchy part of town. He delivered us to a dilapidated building with a hotel sign hanging outside the entrance. We paid four times the normal amount for a horrid room. Neither of us slept well on that 7-hour lay-over.

Our friend later said that our experience was a common scam in Delhi. To avoid this, order a ‘pre-paid’ taxi from inside the terminal organized by the police department. That way, travelers to India can avoid unpleasant surprises.

Live and Learn to Adjust to Chaos in India

Our friend’s motto, ‘When in India, learn to adjust’, quickly became necessary. The first word that comes to mind is chaos; nothing feels organized or regulated or patterned. The narrow local streets are filled with people, dogs, motorcycles honking; and nearly colliding with pedestrians, and always, cows. Trash and cow dung are everywhere with their inherent stench and filth. Riding the breeze, the fragrance of cooking spices and incense has its moment, too. The big picture emerged as if life itself had gathered all the smelly filth and cooking scents; whipped them together with an onslaught of dissonant sounds; stirred in the myriad spicy aspects of humanity from beggar to saint; and dumped this colorful dish onto one single plate called India! For the first few days, all of our senses were inundated and overwhelmed with this cacophony of smells, sounds, activity, and color.

Rishikesh, a World unto Itself

Temples and ashrams fill the landscape. Everywhere one looks, there is either an ashram, temple or yoga center. Rishikesh is a destination spot for many spiritual seekers and those looking for enlightenment. The town (and India in general) is rich with history and rituals dating back thousands of years. There are stories and rituals for every part of life and living. The local ashrams engage in lavish ritualistic events both morning and night. My particular favorite is called Arti; a celebration on and to Mother Ganges. It involves letting go of our problems and toils of the day and showing gratitude to the Ganges who brings life to all. Many people visit here for weeks to months solely for the yogic and meditation practices. Our friend introduced us to a local priest and his wife who maintain a temple of Ram. He is the third or fourth generation of temple keepers. The priest and his wife invited us for lunch one day. Since then we have become friends. They are some of the most giving people i have ever met.

The streets of Rishikesh are lined with shops of all kinds from fruit and vegetable cart vendors to jewelry, book, internet and pharmaceutical shops. You can find most anything you want, and, at a reduced price. Large papayas can be purchased for 50-60 rupees (approximately 75-80 cents USD), Internet café connections are 30 rupees per hour. Some bargaining and price haggling is acceptable and useful, but beware of scams and overpricing simply because you are a foreigner.

If you are a sports enthusiast, Rishikesh offers some excellent white water rafting on the Ganga. Northern India is famous for its trekking —  whether you are on a pilgrimage or interested in tackling difficult trips into and around the Himalayas. You can arrange any level of trekking with local companies. Just outside the town in the Rahji Reserve you may possibly view tigers, leopards, deer and even elephants in their natural environment.

One can find almost any cuisine here ranging from a German bakery to an honest to goodness Italian pizza restaurant. To avoid intestinal problems, stay away from un-boiled water and food that doesn’t look freshly cooked. This is much more important in the summer months when certain bacteria flourish.

Rishikesh is home to many events including an annual international yoga festival which draws thousands to its banks on the Ganges. We experienced a holiday called Holi where people smear colored powder on others and engaged in special lunches and dinners with family and friends. It is a day when people can let down their usual responsibilities and play.

Within a Day’s Ride

Many fascinating places to visit are within three to four hours from Rishikesh. Our new friends took us to some famous Hindu temples just an hour from the town. At one Shiva temple, a constant fire has been maintained for thousands of years. At another, Sadhus (holy men) live in caves and smear themselves with white ash from the fires they tend. Our friend, the priest spent years hiking the hills above Rishikesh. He found and purchased a piece of property which overlooks the town and much of the Ganga Valley. The views are stupendous.

Three hours from Rishikesh is another Shiva temple which strategically sits at the confluence of two rivers which is the official beginning of the Ganga. The Ganga itself flows from its beginning in the mountains all the way to the Bay of Bengal, while nourishing the nation.

The Mighty Himalayas in India

The Mighty Himalayas

Another hour beyond this confluence we entered a tiny village of approximately 50 families. At the top of the village we spent two nights in a relative’s house which affords an outstanding view of the Himalayas. Tears filled my eyes upon first seeing this incredible mountain range, a place I have longed to see my entire life. I spent many hours sitting and gazing at those magnificence mountains – the rooftop of the world.

While walking through the little village, we met some of the locals who invited us to see their gardens and sit for a visit and some chai (tea). They were friendly and charming. We all fell in love with these villagers immediately. Upon leaving we invited them for afternoon tea and snacks. The next afternoon, half of the village showed up.  Women, teenagers, and children, all curious as to who these foreigners were, filled the tiny house. They brought musical instruments with them. After chai and snacks, they provided us with a concert of songs and dances of their local area. In total about 30 of them crammed into this 10×15 foot room, enlivening the place with songs and exquisite dances.

After the party was over, they invited us back down to their houses where we spent the remainder of the afternoon chatting and snapping hundreds of photos. The women showered us with gifts of oranges, limes, daikon radishes, and walnuts grown in their back yards.

None of us wanted to say goodbye. We felt welcomed and perfectly at ease with these individuals. They found a place in our hearts and minds, never to be forgotten.

That night the priest and i sat up alone talking about some of the extraordinary events we experienced in our lives even though we come from entirely different worlds.  I made a friend i will not easily forget.

North to Kashmir

Leaving Rishekesh to travel to Srinagar, Kashmir requires three short flights. Security is rigid so make certain your passport and visa are current and ready. Due to the recent difficulty in Brussels, security for us was even tighter. Allow yourself a full two hours before your flight’s departure.

Srinagar is situated in a large valley surrounded by steep mountains, with the Himalayas in the background visible on clear days. March and April bring rains, leafing tree buds, and flowers to the area. On Lake Dal one can rent a room on a house boat with a cook and a butler (prices vary according to the tourist season).

The town itself is rich with artisans, mosques, and temples. Some of the world’s highest quality Kashmiri rugs, coats, sweaters, and scarves can be purchased from local vendors. Saffron is grown locally; price varies with quality. Price bargaining is accepted and almost expected by local salesmen. Be prepared to be approached by vendors selling everything from postcards to hand-crafted wood items.

Some of the local attractions are the tulip and Mughal gardens that can be accessed for 20 rupees (about 30 cents US). The marketplace harbors anything from fruits and breads to kitchen wares, to clothing, and extraordinary silk rugs which can take up to 6 years to produce.

Shikara, the local water taxi in India

Shikara, the local water taxi

Various day trips can be arranged with the houseboat owner. One such adventure is a boat ride around Lake Dal and an adjoining lake/canal system in a craft called a shikara, similar to an Italian gondola. The trip includes 4 or 5 stops including a visit to a Muslim mosque. Usually a packed lunch is provided for each traveler. Other day trips available are excursions to temples and the Mughal Gardens. One temple overlooking Srinagar is the Temple of Soloman constructed in the mid-seventeenth century. Once the taxi deposits you at the top of the hill, take the 262 stone steps to the temple. The views of Srinagar are commanding.

Leaving Srinagar via the airport requires patience on the part of the traveler. You and your bags are searched and scanned three or four times. The military presence is very strong and can be unnerving. The boarding process has no structure as everyone scrambles for the gate.

South to Delhi

Flying over and in to Delhi is an eye-opening experience; it is huge. I imagine that 3 or 4 Los Angeles basins could easily fit into this city. Delhi is home to 18,000,000 residents. There are actually seven Delhis. This time, with the help of our friend, we easily secured a pre-paid taxi which delivered us into the heart of Janparth, the British section of New Delhi. Here one finds modern hotels, restaurants, fashion shops, and central parks.

If you are brave and adventurous, you may attempt a journey into the older sections of town, where, on Sundays, you will discover a flea market that goes on for kilometers. If you desire quiet and peaceful surroundings, old Delhi is not your place. Even on Sunday afternoons, there are literally millions of people roaming the streets.

When leaving India by air, allow yourself at least two to three hours as getting through security and customs can eat up much of your time.

All in all, India is a land of extremes with every possibility of life crammed onto a single plate for the seasoned traveler to digest. Namaste.

Robert Munster, Author, goes to India

Robert Munster is Editor of The Author of Living on Intuition, Goes to IndiaVacation Rental Travel Guide and author of three books, Still Surfing, Living on Intuition and Who are We Really? He lives part time in the Dominican Republic and part time in Maine, while pursuing his passion to surf, write, travel, and garden.

 Comments Welcome: Make a comment below (our writers work hard…give them some love!) on any of our Live Reviews by Travel Writer Cindy White, Liz Manduca, Emily Yurcheshen, Deborah Nelson, or Renee Fontaine, and get a FREE Digital version of The Vacation Rental Travel Guide when it is hot off the press!

Leave a Reply