#7 – Trains & Buses; Delhi & Dharamshala; New Friends & Old Routines

Tuesday, Oct 1st – Monday Oct 7th

Eventually after 2 weeks it became the day that I was to leave Saraya Ecostay – my first Workaway experience in Goa India. I wished goodbye to all the friends I had made the last 2 weeks, and in the morning was off to the train station for a 36-hour ride to India’s capital: Delhi. In the Non-AC sleeper class the average Indians travel – it was mostly full of men, but I sat across from a family with a 2-ish year old baby who had pierced ears. It’s oddly quite common that Indian kids both male and female have pierced ears at a very young age.

Riding the train was thrilling at first, as I stood with my body partially out the open door to get a fresh breeze (and regularly a very strong stench of urine) listening to music like “Born on a Train” by the Magnetic Fields. Watching the world go by, India uncovered its beautiful lush green semi-mountainous terrain along the stretch from Goa to Mumbai. The sunset over the river was magnificent, and watching it while having conversation with new friends I met on the train was an added bonus.

The excessive trash along the tracks was however quite saddening. Especially since so many farms were bordering the path, I’m sure that all the human waste (organic and non-organic) can’t be good for the soil, and for one’s health when eating rice grown in that soil. Even when stopped on a bridge over the river, people are throwing plastic water bottles and tin lids out the window without any second thought of the impact it has down the line. The good news is that now the ideology is starting to change, slowly but surely, partially thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s campaign to clean up India, as well as NGO’s such as the Waste Warriors, who I would soon start volunteering for after 3 nights in Delhi.

By the time we reached Mumbai around 6 PM the sun had set, so I ate a Mimosa, drank some mango juice, and passed the time by reading and writing. The thrill had diminished, and I was soon ready to try speed up the conscious journey I was taking by going to sleep. Even the top bunk didn’t feel clean at all, but I managed to stay healthy during and after the ride. With my bag of clothes as a pillow and backpack locked to the adjacent mesh bars, I fell in and out of sleep for maybe 10 hours.

Wednesday, Oct 2nd was still spent mostly on the train. My friend who I had shared some Goan cashews with the day prior bought me a cappuccino in the morning, and I was feeling surprisingly refreshed. The terrain had flattened, and we passed by many small villages that looked so burning hot, poor, and run-down, I couldn’t help but to feel so grateful that I was born in America where there’s decent infrastructure and far less falling apart buildings and trash scattered everywhere. So I read, listened to music, and absorbed the scenery that I’ll likely never see again.

I made some more friends once we were close to Delhi – some who were big fans of American heavyweight lifters, as they were traveling to compete in Indian heavyweight lifting themselves. Another named Vikash told me how he has been traveling alone for the past 2 years because his family wouldn’t support him any longer. At 19 he was a traveling chef, and though he was very engaged in his nomadic lifestyle, I could see the deep pain in his eyes when he talked about his family. His father simply doesn’t understand him and is not willing to listen. They haven’t spoken on good terms in over 2 years, and every attempt turns sour. I guess like attracts like.

As an American with a broken relationship with my father, my case isn’t terribly rare. But in India, family ties are much more sacred. What my friend Anmol (who I met in Dharamshala) found most strange about American culture is that at age 18 one is expected to move out of their parents home and either live with friends or alone. In India, people usually stick in their family’s homes for their whole lives. You’re not judged as someone who is unable to support themselves so they have to live with their parents. Sticking with your family is the norm, and when you are alone at a young age like Vikash was, that means something terrible must have happened in your family.

Sure Indian families argue with each other, but they tend to work things out or at least deal with each other’s differences. At around 1%, India actually has the lowest divorce rate in the world. But the reasons for this aren’t entirely positive. Women generally have very little voice and often aren’t able to support themselves on their own. Divorce is also a great shame to the family name, a terribly difficult legal process, and a sacred bond taken much more seriously in Hinduism than Christianity. Plus with so many arranged marriages, not having much of a choice from the start doesn’t set you up to have choice later on. Still, although I think that my parents made the right choice by getting divorced, there is something to be learned from the cooperation and strong family values that exist all over India.

So eventually Vikash and I parted ways after exchanging social media info, and I finally arrived in Delhi around 5:30 PM. The streets there are possibly the most chaotic and jam-packed I’ve ever seen. I made it to my hostel, went out to eat and considered ordering a beer, but since it was Gandhi Jayanti, one of India’s 3 national holidays marking Gandhi’s birthday anniversary, all alcohol sales were prohibited. So I simply took advantage of having a comfortable, stable bed to sleep in, and rested for a long time that night.

Thursday, Oct 3rd

In the morning I was off to see sights for the whole day. I first walked through crazy streets and underneath a sketchy bridge to find the Lotus Temple of the Bahá’i faith, which was super tourist-packed but still really beautifully designed in the shape of a lotus flower, or water lily. Then I hit the streets and I saw so many people heading down this narrow footpath all heading the same direction, I thought I might as well go see what all the hustle was about. It was for Shree Kalka Ji Temple, and though in the moment I really didn’t enjoy being squished on all sides between hundreds of people, it was perhaps my most interesting cultural experience in Delhi.

For it wasn’t touristy at all, but a Hindu tradition that took a totally different vibe in India’s capital and second most populated city. Once you’re filtered into a walkway that goes around the temple’s core, you pass shops selling flowers, puffed rice, and other sacred items, which you eventually give to the man in the center through a little window (What he does with it, I’m not really sure). Eventually after plenty of excessive pushing and people cutting in front of you, you walk around the small perimeter of the temple, touching the walls and then your forehead directly after. You eat a little bit of the sweet puffy rice that others had placed there, and when walking out after your 5-minute loop you get a red and yellow string tied around your wrist. Also perhaps a Bindi, or a red dot atop your “third eye,” the center-point between your eyebrows. Thankfully there was a kind man I was following who offered to show me what you typically do at every step.

I was relieved to finally escape the hoard of people, and I rejuvenated myself with some sugarcane juice. Then I rode a tuk-tuk (3-wheeled tiny taxi) to Humayun’s tomb, which was full of beautiful architecture but quite touristy. I took plenty of more selfies with Indians, and was then off to Akshardham. After a 20 minute ordeal of checking in my bag and camera, leaving me only with cash and my free entry ticket, I made it through the gates. This was the most beautiful architectural design I’d seen yet in India. So many tiny carvings of people and animals, perfectly symmetrical with everything else. A big golden statue and clean marble floors gave a very royal feeling to the Hindu Temple. However the nearby theater exhibit felt more like something from an amusement park. You move from room to room maybe ten times, either watching a film or a stage of mechanical characters that act out the storyline of Swaminarayan. It was informative but felt very out-of-place at such a magnificent place of worship. So did the multitude of shops selling junky food, the large overpriced gift-shop, and costly photo opportunities.

After Akshardham I went to check out the India Gate (like the famous arches in France and Germany). It naturally was very crowded all around but at least spread out over a big street and nearby fields. It was a long walk down a very wide footpath to reach Indian Parliament. The sidewalks were covered with nice tents selling food and products in the tradition of practically every state in India. I was happily surprised by the delicious food, free art exhibits, live music, and tastes of various Indian cultures. Right after nightfall I reached Indian parliament but it had just closed for the day. I started to walk back but it started pouring rain so heavily that by the time my tuk-tuk took me to my hostel, the water level was sometimes halfway up to my knees as I walked the rest of the way. It was an exhausting day, and I slept quite soundly that night.

Friday October 4th was (thankfully) my last full day in Delhi. So I went to see some more sights – first the Red Fort – which was quite touristy but had some interesting history and architecture. Then a walk through old Delhi revealed more super crowded streets and cheap shops of all sorts. Afterwards I walked around the Indian parliament, alongside a monkey who had much more access to different areas than I did. Then I made my way to a park, which was peaceful and a much needed break from the city life. Finally I went to Hans Plaza, because why not, but there were no signs even saying my name :/ just more crowded streets and fancier clothing and jewelry shops. It was a busy day with lots of walking, but nothing too extraordinary worth mentioning here.

Saturday Oct 5th I took a bus around 5:30 AM to Dharamshala. The ride was rather long and boring until I got to Chandigarh, which is when I first laid eyes on the Himalayas. A very sweet girl sat next to me who was from Himachal Pradesh (India’s NW Himalayas), and told me a little bit about her life. Unlike most other Indians I’ve met, she doesn’t listen to American music or watch any American television. She loves the simpler, quieter life in the mountains, and is happy without so much constant entertainment (though she is a regular Instagram user).

As we talked our bus passed by monkeys, Eucalyptus trees and Mango trees, up massive hills and back down into the next valley, revealing some of the tallest (perhaps the tallest) and steepest snow-laden mountains I’ve ever seen. Like Colorado but on steroids. It was incredibly beautiful, and also offered me some super refreshing cool air as soon as we started gaining significant elevation. The sun set over the mountains and I still had another 2 hours until I reached Dharamshala. I was so relieved to finally arrive around 7:30 PM, and after a taxi ride past the Dalai Lama’s residence and steep hike up the road where taxis can’t even drive I made it to the room where I’d be staying for the next week as I volunteer with my next Workaway – Waste Warriors.

Sunday October 6th brought a handful of unexpected adventures. There was no work for me with Waste Warriors, so I explored the town of Upper Bhagsu for a little while. It was very hippie-tourist oriented, with yoga centers, ecstatic dance, and Tibetan massage parlors spread about. A strange temple held a shrunken stair set leading through the mouth of a tiger. Shops were selling dreamcatchers, mini Buddha figures, and handmade leather notebooks. It was hippie paradise, and accordingly the human environment was more full of white people than anywhere else I’d been so far in India.

So I went for a little nature walk to a nearby popular waterfall called Bhagsunag. I passed some stunning birds with long, striped tails, and took the secret path to the waterfall where I followed two Buddhist monks dressed in their traditional red robes, or Kasayas. Once I got there I found a small cafe, prayer flags, and plenty of people hanging out on the rocks surrounding the small pool that the waterfall plummeted into. Very few were actually swimming, but that was no deterrent for me. I emptied my pockets into my bag and went full-in, soaking my head beneath the cold falling water, feeling the rejuvenating rush of energy. A fellow Indian traveler from Jaipur noticed me, as he was the only other one crazy enough to be doing the same thing as I was. He mentioned that he and a group of friends were going to continue hiking up the mountain, and I was welcome to join. I was planning on going back to my room after the waterfall but without any specific plan in mind, so I gladly jumped on the opportunity.

It turned out to be a group of maybe 15 other Indians, all from Jaipur, a 16 hour drive from Dharamshala, visiting just for the weekend. We started hiking alongside a herd of goats and picked up a dog who tagged along for our entire trek. I got to know several of them very well by the time our hike was finished. One was an electronic musician named AFTERall, another was still afraid of heights, and they all were students at a university. On the way up we listened to a surprising amount of American pop music, most of which was new to me. We ascended through the forested hills up into the drier, shrubbier land for perhaps 2 hours. Close to our stopping point we met another Indian named Sid, who was traveling solo and was likewise happy to accompany us for the rest of our trek.

Eventually we rested at this spectacular clearing about 8,000 ft above sea level where we could sit on the grass, eat Maggi (like Indian ramen noodles) and drink chai from this super isolated mini-cafe way up in the mountains. It was the deepest into nature I had been since I arrived in India, and made me feel so at home. We sat and exchanged Instagram info, took an abundant amount of group selfies, and talked a bit with the other folks who were sitting nearby. There was a way-too-drunk man from Afghanistan, some Europeans, and two Buddhist monks sitting off in the distance. I ate a wild tomato and met plenty more mountain goats, soon to return back down the slope.

It was a swift walk down, for we hadn’t much time until the light in the sky disappeared. We made it back to the waterfall where I met them just as it became too dark to see, and we took the easy, wide footpath back to town to have a few snacks afterwards. I tried some street-food I had never eaten before, such as momos (pretty much Asian dumplings) and this strange but delicious hollow fried wheat ball dipped in a cold spicy water/sauce called Pani Puri. Like so many other Indians I’ve met who take me under their wing, they wouldn’t let me pay for anything.

There was talk of hanging out at their hotel, possibly with alcohol, and I was thoroughly enjoying their company, so I tagged along. It turned out to be a 30 minute walk from Bhagsunag waterfall (and where I was staying). Since we had dinner quite late when we arrived there, they offered that I could spend the night at their hotel. It was a kind gesture, and I was open to it depending on how the night went. Soon after dinner (which at their hotel again costed me nothing) we went to buy drinks, and I picked up a bottle of the classic Indian rum: Old Monk. On the way back (before any drinking occurred) we were listening to some really loud music and stopped multiple times in the middle of the street (or stairs) for a dance break. At 10:45 I felt concerned about waking others up, and eventually someone indeed opened their window and yelled, “Do you have no respect!?”

We walked more quietly the rest of the way back, and once we got to their hotel I needed to pass some test to get into the room where we were to hang out. I was asked “what do you call this person who does […]” and thanks to my friends teaching me some Hindi swear words just a few hours prior, I responded with “Matachodh” and “Gandu”, each time the group erupting in cheer and laughter. We made it in and I recognized another face who I had briefly danced with at the waterfall. I sat and mostly talked with my few closest friends I met on the trek, since everyone else was speaking Hindi. After maybe 30 minutes, it became obvious that one girl I was trekking with suddenly got way too drunk, and we decided to go back to her room to take care of her and not disturb the others.

Apparently in India it’s very taboo even at college age to get too drunk, and they told me that everyone was judging her pretty hard for generally losing control of herself. I, however, was quite used to seeing both sexes lose far more control than her at University of Michigan. I shrugged it off while I kept having a good time with everyone else, though as I passed by she kept apologizing for being so drunk. That night really showed me how drinking is far less integrated into their culture than in the US. Even though the drinking age is 18, some people I had trekked with had still never tried alcohol and were well past the legal age. One of them, aged 20(?) tried alcohol for the first time that night, and many others had only drank a few times before. It mainly is because of Hinduism, and the way that it has shaped the social norms, even if one isn’t a strict Hindu. I actually find it pleasantly refreshing that the cultural norm of meeting a potential partner or reuniting with friends doesn’t typically involve going out to a bar.

I hadn’t been to a house/hotel party with college kids in quite a long time, and with all Indians was a first. There was a very light and happy mood, except for the girl drank too much and started crying. Many Indians I’ve met so far are very expressive and passionate, and even more so when drinking. I don’t want to stay up until 3 AM like I did that night very often, but it was totally worth it. The best adventures are the ones you don’t plan, but fall right into your hands.

Since I was up so late the night before, Monday Oct 7th was mostly a rest day. I walked back to my room around 10, and afterwards wrote, read, napped, and did a little bit of exploring. I discover many more hippie-friendly cafes up these paths that change from road into tiny footpath into road again. A taste of the quiet life further up in the mountains where I don’t hear honking every 10 seconds was a well-needed break from all the commotion in the rest of India.

Well, that completes another entire week of adventures. So much has happened since – I started volunteering with Waste Warriors, traveled to Rishikesh, and then took another bus through Nepal’s westernmost border with India. There I’ve stayed in Bardia while visiting a national park with tigers, rhinos, and elephants, and have stayed for the past week or so at my third Workaway in the Nepali countryside near Chitwan national park teaching English and painting. With so many adventures and time spent connecting with other natives and fellow travelers, I find myself more behind in blogging than ever. Regardless, there will be evermore exciting stories and cultural reflection to come!

Namaste 🙏,

Hopper

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