A journey to India is never easy to tell. Usually, India is described as amazing, charming, beautiful, spiritual. Travelers and tourists come back from their Indian journey enlightened, or with a spiritual path, or with amazing pictures of temples and the great ancient wonders. So when I came back to Italy after my journey to India alone it was so hard for me to answer the question: “How was India?”.
Itineraries through India
I left for a solo journey to India on the 16th of August this year from Rome to New Delhi. I knew it was not the best time to visit, but I simply couldn’t wait for the better season. I felt the urge of leaving Europe (and the West in general) in search of some spirituality, or at least something away from shopping malls, restaurants and all the nice (and not nice) things and comforts we have in our society. It was not my first time in India. I had already been to Mumbai, Pune and Hayderabat for the wedding of an Indian friend of mine, which was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. That was in 2013 and at that time I was with two other “Western” girls. All went very smooth and the impression I got – as I traveled from Kenya where I used to live- was that I was actually coming closer to our standards of living. I don’t know if it was simply for the facts that there actually were more shops then in Kenya, or that I could find a hairdresser easily, but India just felt so familiar.
Well anyway this time, I went straight to Rishikesh with a nice 8 hours night drive from New Delhi. I had already my first destination scheduled: Anand Prakash Ashram, where my yoga teacher had studied to become a yoga teacher. I got there early in the morning. The sky was covered in grey and humidity was just a hint (I would have realized soon after that that was only a 5 am kind of thing). I immediately joined the puja that was going on as the daily routine and then had breakfast with the other Ashram guests. After settling in my really not luxurious shared room, I went out. And it felt immediately different. Streets were leaking dirty water, trash was everywhere on the sides of the roads, the city was all under construction. Everything was so loud and full of dust, the air was so humid and heavy in my lungs. Luckily, I was in a quiet and tidy Ashram, and there was the 6 pm yoga session to join, then dinner and bedtime! So that was how my yoga retreat week passed by. 5:20 am meditation, 6:00 am asana session, 7:30 am puja, 8:30 am breakfast, 12:30 pm lunch, 6 pm asana, 7:30 pm dinner, 9 pm bed. And yet it was so hard to adjust to it, and so hard to give up to the fact of not having to do anything, if not meditating, and self-study. So hard that I couldn’t help but go out during the day, despite the heat and the humidity. And the monsoon! Oh god, the rain. So beautiful and powerful! I thought about staying longer, but the heat was disturbing me. Yoga practice was more like torture ( I will never understand why Hot Yoga is popular in the West).
The mountains of Uttarakhand
So I decided to leave. I had found a guy on Facebook who was looking for volunteers for a tiny private school in the mountains of Uttarakhand. Funny thing is: the place was nowhere to be found on Google Maps, which showed anyway no sign of commodities nor facilities in the surrounding 60 km radius from the coordinates the guy sent me. This is the story of how I hopped on a scooter, drove for hours and hours and ended up in a town called Kodiwar with a complete stranger. (And here I am not suggesting anyone follow my example, honestly). We left around 10 am from Rishikesh, where it had rained all night long non-stop. Roads were muddy and with streams flowing here and there. And on those bumpy, wet Indian streets, with my 60 liters back bag we drove until the chaotic small town close to the mountains of Kodiwar. There, Ashish – the complete stranger who became a friend after few hours of driving – had his sister – Jotri – who kindly hosted us for a night. The following morning, we were able to leave again only late in the morning, due to the heavy rains. The drive that day was breathtaking: we went up to the mountains and through the Tiger Reserve of Kalagarh. It was water and forest around us and nothing else, away from the noisy traffic that you get in every single little town of India (and yet the few cars that passed by didn’t lose the opportunity to horn while passing by. After several hours of driving, we stopped at the house where I would have slept. As we got off the scooter, I realized there were no houses nearby. I wondered where I would stay. And there he showed me: across the river, three colourfull houses which I would have later found out to be the houses of Manoj – my host – his mother and his sister. At that moment, my first thought was: I am not going to cross this river without a bridge. Ashish had never thought that crossing a river could be a problem for me. After all, for all of Manoj family was simply daily routine. And he was right: in the deepest part of the river, the water barely reached my knees. It was possible. Manoj and his family welcomed us with a nice 4 pm lunch and the kindest, honest smiles. The house was dark in the inside, but the colors outside made up for it. We were in the middle of paddy fields and vegetable garden, with the view over the river, obviously. Everything was so bright green and no sign of other human beings anywhere in the surrounding. (In the following days, I would have discovered that we did have neighbors).
Anyhow, that same heavenly landscape the following morning was completely different: we woke up in the middle of one of the worst monsoon of the past 10 years. Kerala at the same time was flooding, with lots of casualties and destruction. We woke up without electricity, running water and mobile network. We were cut out from everything: the river at that point was uncrossable and even a bit scary for me. My volunteer experience in India ended up being only three days in the school. The whole week was raining day and night and I got discouraged. I left Manoj and his dear family with the promise of returning soon and headed back to Jotir – I will never thank her enough – in Kodiwar. From there the following morning I took a bus to New Delhi, and from there to Agra.
The highway from New Delhi to Agra is one of the best of all India I think. You just have to take the right bus. Local buses (which are really really cheap) are also really really dirty and crowded. I do not suggest anyone to opt for it. The train is also a good option to reach Agra. Anyhow, with an easy 3 hours ride, I got to Agra at 8 pm, where I had already booked for a hostel. To my pleasant surprise, the area where I was staying was nothing like I imagined. Despite the hostels and restaurants for tourists, there were barely any tourists around. After a week in the mountains being able to speak only with Manoj, I was actually looking forward to engaging with tourists and I was happy to meet my roommate Elo from Argentina, with whom I was able to tell a bit of my experience stuck in the Indian mountains with monsoons. I was also excited to be in a place that looked Muslim. In the mountains, Induism was the majority and statues of Shiva and temples dotted the landscape. Agra was the capital of India from 1506 until 1638. During that time, India was mostly under the Muslim Mughal Empire. Which means, there is lots to see in the city and, since I had woken up around 5 am every single morning of my Indian journey, I decided that the best time to visit was early in the morning before the heat stroke. And so I did…oh beautiful early morning before all the chaos of traffic wakes up. I visited Agra Fort on one morning and Taj Mahal another. Conclusion: better going as early as 5 am. The other amazing place I went is Fatehpūr Sikrī, an old city with its beautiful palace, mosque, a huge madras all contained in this huge complex that still stands in all of its magnificence.
After two days of tourism in its purest terms, I realized I was just 60 km away from one of the best destinations of pilgrimage of all India! Vrindavan, the town where Lord Krishna spent his childhood. Despite being really close, it was really hard to get there! I first had to take a bus to Mathura (which is considered to be the birthplace of Krishna) and from that, I had to get off basically in the middle of a “highway” and get a tuktuk to Vrindavan…which is was not at all how you would expect it! Or at least it was not how I expected. In Italy, holy cities are full of souvenir shops, they are really expensive and you have that sense of loss of authenticity. Well, Vrindvan is nothing of that sort. There are shops for tourists but in perfect Indian style. And it is not expensive, but there are no budget places for backpackers, which is actually nice. And it’s dirty and holiness is in every corner. Chants and bells accompanied me days and nights. I happened to be there for a special celebration: the commemoration of Krishna’s apparition on earth. And that’s when I found out that crowds are no longer for me. Streets were so crowded that walking was a challenge and the personal space was just a dream. After a couple of days, I decided that it was time for me to get back to the city, despite the fact of really NOT planning too!
And that is how I ended up in a hostel in South Delhi, close to the metro station. The first moments back to the city are shocking: women are all dressed Western style and everyone is with the mobile phone glued to their hands. The underground trains have the first wagons for women only and the other wagons have women-preference-seats where only men sit. No one looks at you, no one notices you. You are not the only Western around anymore and everyone speaks English! The first day I sleep and read some of the free books available in the shelves of the hostel: reading a book for the first time in three weeks feels good. Also feels good – and weird in a way – to have toilet paper in the toilet and that hint of warm water in your shower! After a day spent without talking to anyone and without doing nothing, I decide to go out and discover one of the most famous buildings of the surrounding: The Lotus Temple! Mine was also a spiritual search, after all. It is worth mentioning at this point that Lonley Planet – nor any other guidebook – was ever opened during this journey. So I queued and entered the lotus temple without knowing it was not an Induist temple. I had just given it for guaranteed. I realized from the busy crowd that it was no ordinary temple. Indians do not really queue much: mostly they elbow and bump into each other. And then when I got inside: that silence, and those benches, and that emptiness!! Basically, inside this huge flower-shaped building peace in the widest sense of the word invaded me, and it was the really first time since I had arrived. And I crossed my legs on the bench and meditated..and it was the best meditation of the whole India trip!
Journey back home
And there it is, my India. That is how I would answer, if I had to do it in few words, to the question: “How was India”. Magical, noisy, dirty and yet unique.