India is one of those places that should be categorised as “magical.” I believe Iceland’s also one of those magical lands, but for totally different reasons. India has this complex, seductive appeal that not even a lifetime is enough to fully explore or truly understand this huge sub-continent and all its belongings. You could spend a whole life traveling here and never see the same person twice, much less, each person once. It feels like a country one can never tick off their ‘to-do’ list, since every visit to India will bring a bombardment of new experiences and information. This second trip to India was, for me, totally different than the first. It was just as chaotic, and I got sick again, but having twice as much time here allowed me to settle in a little more, better prepared for the culture shock of arriving here from Iceland, France and Germany – literally worlds away.
(India’s magic inspires me to write, so I apologise for this lengthy post, but there’s just not much one can edit out when trying to describe their time in India.)
I wasn’t nearly as sick as I was last time in India, but was totally paralysed one morning from a stiff upper back resulting after a 10 hr overnight train journey in regular class – not the comfiest beds. Then I got a head cold, with a stuffy nose congested enough to completely debilitate my sense of smell and taste. That’s probably the biggest curse that could have ever befallen me, since I was most excited about being in India to gorge in the abundant flavours and spicy cuisine. Not even the hottest chutney’s or pickled achaar could relieve my sinuses, so I settled for going on texture alone, and I could definitely still feel the spices burning my tongue, the tickle of sugar from the masala chai, and the bitter bite of dal. Losing my sense of smell, however, was probably a blessing in disguise, since I can barely recollect the choking smell of exhaust and piss so often dictating the aroma of Indian cities.
ground up, colourful spices and plants used for prayer, the source of all those powdery red dots on everyone’s forehead
Even with all the easily accessible, cheap food, Indian people looked really thin. They’re just very small people, and Im not sure if it’s a matter of genetics or nutrition, but probably a bit of both. I saw a sticker reoccurring on the back of rickshaws advertising “Lose/Gain Weight” and a phone number to call – I’m sure more people wanted the latter.
a muslim vegetable market in Mysore
Another sign I saw, also in a couple different places, was a big banner offering “Learn Real English”, as if the English people speak isn’t real English. Frankly, I’d say the majority of people, the exception being upper-class, educated or tourism related people, didn’t speak very much English at all. I don’t blame them, since just southern India has 4 major languages (and many, many minor languages and dialectal variations), and all are completely unrelated and use totally different alphabets. Thus, people learn their local language, then pick up bits of neighbouring languages useful or necessary, and most people learn Hindi or read a bit of Sanskrit, so English seems to be lower down in the priority line. Despite English being the national language, few spoke enough of it for them to understand our American-english pronunciation of words and place names. During the wedding, we would flag down a taxi and repeat over and over, in varying speeds, volume and accent, “Sindhoor Hall,” but no-one could figure out the location we were talking about until we directed them there, pointing left and right, and then once we arrived, the driver would exclaim “Ah, Sindhoor Hall!” in exactly the same way we thought we said it.
selling flowers, like the ones used in wedding ceremonies and to ornament their temples
The scariest thing I saw one day on the road was a boy of about 10 years, driving a scooter with his 3 or 4 year old brother steering, neither wearing helmets, and zipping along in traffic beside a crowd of other law-bending drivers that don’t necessarily know how to drive any better, but certainly the safety of those two boys should be prized slightly more. Little kids were always very friendly, and in fact many Indians were genuinely interested in us without wanting to take our money. Many were curious enough to talk to us, usually asking the same questions: “Which country?” and “What is your name?” Then they would giggle and run off, either because they became too shy to keep talking to us or because it was the extent of their English. Others were a little more passive, just staring in amusement, but never making eye contact as to avoid seeming rude or perhaps avoid being approached. Sometimes it felt like they were the tourists, and we were the traveling attraction, bringing them a bit of culture from our western ways for them to gawk at. Many people asked to take photos of us, with us, or just of them so they could see it on our digital camera display screens. Interestingly enough, the majority of the people we encountered even in touristy parts were all Indian, since Indians probably make up 90 or 85% of their own tourism industry.
some sleepy goats, tied to a tree with much less freedom than their fellow cows. And of course Coca Cola manages to spoil the rural feel.
Bangalore is a very green city, not in the eco-friendly sense the word is used, but literally speaking. It was probably the cleanest city Ive seen, as far as pollution and smog, even though an irritated cough still crept up once in a while. The city and roadways are littered with big, leafy green streets and parks, yet free-foaming cows seem to take little advantage of this since they like to rummage through trash heaps or take all the free food offered to them. When people go to the temple or have spare veggies, they simply leave it out for the cows to eat, and as a result, they become fat and happy, very tame cows, not even startled by the incessant horn blowing traffic surrounding them on all sides while crossing a highway road. They just chew, poop, sleep and repeat all day, and not much else, so they seem to live pretty relaxing lives. The stray dogs, on the other hand, look quite worse-for-wear, and I even saw puppies and kittens that failed to be cute, a feat I once considered impossible.
a boy at the residence halls of Sera Je monastery in Bylakuppe
I spent the days before the wedding in Hampi, a small town nestled among hundred year old temple ruins. Its just a few streets and tourism facilities situated alongside a river, and then for kilometres in every direction, sprawling with Hindu temples from different eras between the 14th and 18th century. It was a very spiritual place, with devout Hindu’s pushing some of their practices on visitors like vegetarianism and sobriety – you couldn’t buy meat or alcohol on one side of the river, and finding other sacrilegious things like tobacco or condoms was almost unheard of. Many locals practiced Ayurvedic massage and yoga, but it was hard to tease out the authenticity in either since tourism could have created both. I had an Ayurvedic massage to try and straighten out my back, but with her faint touch and jiggle technique on an unpadded, wooden table didn’t do much – the mouldy pillow in my face probably had more (negative) effect.
moonrise behind Virupaksha Temple in Hampi
The days after the wedding I took a train to Mysore and explored the beautiful Palace there, watched the sunset from the top of Chamundi Hill, and bedazzled myself in the market selling an array of colourful, sparkling or sweet smelling items. I went to Sera Je, one of the biggest monasteries and Tibetan settlements outside of China. All the places I visited were beautiful, even the train stations and bus stands had their own charm. While India still has the power to overwhelm me, I still loved it, and perhaps it even grew on me a little more. Ill certainly have to go back again to see what happens the third time around, since everything good must happen in threes according to some Indian superstitions.
sunset from the top of Chamundi Hill, location of another sacred temple