Chennai was the first stop on a month-long trip I took across northern India, partly with the companionship of my friend Ryan. After traveling to places such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia, I was feeling rather confident in my ability to travel, but I soon learned that I wasn’t as invincible as I thought, and became very grateful that I had a friend along for the journey. It wasn’t long after we disembarked from our plane that the struggles of navigating India without a guide or the ability to speak the language began to appear, as we spent a solid half hour haggling for a decent cab fare to our hostel. However, we were just excited that our trip was underway.
The next morning, we got our first taste of real Indian food which was something that I had really been longing for. It didn’t disappoint at all. I would later in the trip get very sick as a result of trying everything that I came across… but if I had to do it all over again, I would still take that risk.
We had a day in Chennai, which we used to walk down to the ocean front and explore the beach, which was packed with many different markets and vendors everywhere, interspersed with thousands of small boats requiring us to zig zag through the sand. I took the time to practice my extremely basic Hindi skills with a few local girls and we both got a big kick out of trying to hold a conversation. We then explored the historic University of Madras, which was in an unusual state of disrepair and disuse. We wandered through an old library with broken lights, a broken elevator, and piles upon piles of books caked in dust. Since I have a love for old abandoned places, finding this old library was a treasure.
We made a stop in Calcutta for a 5 hour layover, during which we took the time to drive by some of the famous slums, as well as visit the national stadium to see where the soccer team plays. During this layover, I got my first glimpse of just how prevalent the bovines are in India. I had always heard of this, of course, but seeing the cows all over the road in every green spot we passed was a different experience. After seeing the national stadium, we took a cab to the Salt Lake City section of town, because I was intrigued that a neighborhood in an Indian city would be called Salt Lake City. Not surprisingly, Salt Lake City, India, and Salt Lake City, Utah, were two very different places. Salt Lake City did have a large, impressive city center shopping complex, but besides that, there were a lot of housing units and urban sprawl. We walked around the neighborhood for a while and said hello to a few locals and a lot of dogs. Then it was back to the airport and on to Varanasi – one of the most anticipated stops on our trip.
From the airport in Varanasi we took a tuk-tuk to the area where our hostel was supposed to be located, and then spent about two hours looking for our hostel. The maze of narrow weaving streets that is Varanasi is impressively difficult to navigate. I generally tend to have a good sense of direction, but after a few days with a guide and a map, I still had no idea where I was or what direction I was headed at any point in time. This problem is only exacerbated by the presence of cows in the street that can cause detours at any point along the route.
Luckily we met a very nice guide who was the son of the hostel owner, and he was happy to spend his days showing us around with the assistance of a tuk-tuk friendly tuk-tuk driver. All of the places I got to see in this amazing city far surpassed my expectations. This was probably my favorite city that I visited in India based on the mix of culture, the deliciousness of the food, and the friendliness of the people that we met.
One morning visited a woodworking shop which had some amazing pieces on display, and we got to watch the process of making some of the artistic pieces that the area is known for. Afterwards, I got to hang out with some of the children that were playing cricket in an empty lot, and tried my hand at swinging the cricket bat. It was pretty funny, though I’m sure they found it even more hilarious to have a shaggy, white American trying to participate in their national pastime.
One of the most serene experiences that I have ever had was spending a morning on a rowboat traveling up and down the Ganges River. Watching the sunrise come up over river and seeing the locals go about their daily rituals of bathing, washing garments, and swimming was unlike anything else I have ever seen. Sipping on hot chai and releasing flowers and candles to float down the river added to the surreal nature of the voyage. It just seemed so far from the world of technology, hustle and bustle, and sense of urgency that I am accustomed to. It was also an amazing photo op, and I snapped a thousand pictures before the sun had risen all the way. Then, I just put the camera away and took everything in. We took another boat trip at night, after visiting some historic places in Varanasi during the day. At night, we watched one of the big ceremonies that takes place along the river, and got to see the burning ghats lighting up the shoreline. Seeing the ritualistic funerals of fire is something that I will never forget and it was strangely peaceful. As a sign painted along the walls of the river says, “Fortunate are the people who reside on the banks of Ganga.”
Along with all the incredible memories, the other thing that I took with me from Varanasi was an vicious stomach virus, presumably from the chicken I consumed at a “5-star restaurant” in Varanasi. I will spare all the less pleasant details, but I was pretty much bedridden for the better part of 3 days before I was feeling well enough to venture far from the hostel. Luckily I still had enough time to travel to Chandni Chowk Market, one of the oldest and most famous street markets in Old Delhi, as well as see the very impressive Red Fort. The sheer size of the fortress was impressive, and we spent hours reveling at the beauty of the inner grounds. I can only imagine what it would be like to live somewhere with a garden that large and beautiful.
From Delhi I bade farewell to Ryan, who had hired a private driver and guide, and opted to take the three hour bus ride to Agra. The three hour bus ride turned out to be a 5+ hour bus ride, but it wasn’t an unpleasant experience due to good weather and sleeping most of the way. Still feeling sick, i checked into a hostel and promptly fell asleep for almost an entire day. When I finally woke up, it was early morning the next day, and I called a tuk-tuk to visit the Taj Mahal. Following the advice of guidebooks, I made sure to be one of the first in line so that I could get an unimpeded view of the building, and it was mindblowingly worth it. The morning sun shining upon the marble pillars was one of the most breathtaking scenes that I have ever witnessed. I spent the entire morning just sitting in various spots around the grounds, watching the way the sun played off the stone and transitioned from one beautiful color to the next, white and pink and orange and yellow and blue. I made good friends with a monkey at one point, just sitting next to it and watching enjoying the fresh morning breeze in one of the most grand and peaceful places in the world.
After leaving Agra, I made my way to Udaipur, where I met up with my friend Ryan again, and then we traveled to Jaipur as well. There were so many things to see such as museums, markets, and polo grounds. Simply too much to list before we made our way to Mumbai, the last stage of our trip. Mumbai was like a whole other world than the rest of India that we had seen so far. Besides being massive, the first thing that is noticeable is the British influence. This was the first city where we had seen large paved roads, actual streetlights, and actual cars besides the Mercedes of the uber rich. Mumbai was just an amazingly fun city, with museums to visit, nightlife to participate in, and an amazing ocean front to walk along.
While in Mumbai we took a two hour ferry ride to see Elephanta Caves, a World Heritage Site that is the home of 7th century cave temples that are elaborately cut into the rock on the beautiful island. The statues and depictions dedicated to the god Shiva are beautiful and impressive.
I also had a good time getting to know the ins and outs of the train system that runs through Mumbai during my week there. It was a thrill learning how to run alongside the moving train and jumping on and hanging on to the outside of the train in order to get a spot. Due to a badly infected toe that was causing a great deal of pain, this method was far preferable to trying to jam onto the train amidst hundreds of people all fighting to rush onto the train while it was stopped. I had attempted this my first few times, and ended up in tears due to how many times it was stomped on and smashed.
I also had a lot of random experiences while in Mumbai, such as seeing a hilariously bad Bollywood movie called Khiladi 786 – currently ranked #60 on IMBD’s list of 100 worst Bollywood movies of all time. It was actually an awesome outing with a group of friends I had established at the awesome hostel I was staying at, Anjali Guest House. (I highly recommend this guest house for its amazingly helpful and kind owners, and the livelihood of the crowd that comes through here. It is also conveniently close to the local train route that goes down to Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus.) People actually threw popcorn at the theater and loudly ridiculed the movie; it was a bonding experience more than anything.
I also got to be a voice actor in a Hindi radio commercial for Fiat of India, saying a bunch of lines I didn’t understand in a hilariously fake Indian accent. The only word I actually understood was when we sang “Fiiiiat” during the jingle. We got paid the equivalent of $10 for our time, and had a great little laugh at our efforts. I can only imagine that I am now part of a famous Indian jingle that people love to sing along with on the radio. (I imagine something like the Five Dollar Footlong level of popularity).
And thus concluded my month-long adventure of India. It was a long and tiring adventure, but one that I will always carry fond memories of. I have no regrets of my trip there, and hopefully one day I will get to travel back to India to see what else it has in store for me.