I started this at some point on the trip and never posted it...After having left India, I will try to describe to you a little bit about what it was like to travel there, although it will not come close to doing it justice.
India is loud and busy and smelly and dirty and there are people everywhere all the time, hanging out of trains, sitting on the floor of train stations, lying on the sidewalks of the big cities, crowding the streets. There are lines for everything—but if you don’t hold your ground, you will get shoved out of your place by even the most refined gentleman, don’t you worry. There are noises: constant car honking (its used as a way to let the other drivers you are passing, are upset, are about to hit them), people hawking loogies (especially in the morning, it is part of a prolonged and fairly gross waking up routine), people selling food in the street, dogs barking and fighting, cows mooing, people’s voices are even loud and there is no such thing as whispering, even on a night train. There are animals everywhere: stray dogs with open wounds and sores, hobbling on 3 legs with ribs sticking out, happily sitting in sewer water to cool down, cows with bony pelvic bones sifting through garbage heaps and eating plastic bags, rats, cats, bugs, monkeys with red bottoms, brazenly stealing food out of peoples' hands, living in almost every temple, water buffalo sitting in the middle of the road or bathing in the rivers, goats, sheep, even pigs. There is the permeating smell of urine that can hit you at any turn in the road, and often stays with you for your entire stay in your budget hotel as the bucket flush squat toilets and old sewer systems do not lend to getting rid of the odor. There is the smell of paan, betel nut juice that is spit after chewing a mixture of the nut, tobacco, lime and other spices and colors the corners of stairwells, curbs, streets and walls every where a dark-red brown; it also colors the lips and teeth of the chewers and almost every hot-blooded Indian man, and quite a few women, chew this concoction. There is the oppressive heat (at least in the summer), humid and thick in some places, dry and biting in others, but it is relentless and the sweat is constant and it makes the filth stick to you even more and makes every task that much harder.
There are constant requests by Indians to take photos both alone and with them, and we are decorating many a mantle after this trip. There are the rapid fire questions that are almost the same sequence: “What is your good name?” “Where are you from?” “What is your profession?” There are the constant stares by everyone, with no attempt to hide them once you acknowledge that you see them staring. There are often lecherous looks by men and sometimes a feel as they pass you on the street. (Indian boys have very little contact with girls basically until they get married and are incredibly immature and clueless about how to behave around women so they think that a white woman is a chance to be lewd.) There are trains and train stations and it seems that the whole country is traveling on a train: in general seating the people are crammed into the cars like you would not believe, hanging out the doors and windows, standing for overnight rides, lying on the floor, sitting on hard benches for 36 or 48 hours, in order to cross the country for $2-3, lying in piles of bodies and food and trash on the floor of the stations, waiting.
There are other white people such as you, always with a backpack, a copy of the Lonely Planet, henna tattoos, Indian scarves, and the ever-present “dookie pants” as Guy and I have named them, baggy pants that could be a skirt except the are stitched at the bottom, creating the effect of having taken a dump. All these people are doing just what you are doing: trying to see and understand this place, all for as cheap as possible, and they keep turning up at the same tourist landmarks because they are on the same trail, making it both nice to be sharing a crazy ride with strangers and a loss of the sense that this is only your experience. Of course there are beggars and naked children and people showering in the street at common water taps and old women squatting at the entrance to the train station with outstretched hands and people with polio and deformities, all asking for money. And there are the admonitions from Indians never to give money to beggars as almost everyone begging is part of a larger operation that should be discouraged. Disabled people are “owned” by beggar masters who collect the money at the end of the day, women can rent babies for the day and then ask for baby formula from a certain store and then return the product and split the profit with the shopkeeper, kids are all being forced into it, and most people say that almost anyone in India can find a job of some kind. But it is hard, hard, hard not to give.
And then there is Hinduism and the temples and the boisterous, colorful, loud, crowded, chaotic expression of devotion that happens all the time with bell-ringing and chanting and incense and cracked coconuts and holy water and red dye and crazy old saddus sitting next to beggar women in the temple entrances. There are priests who are happy to grab you in all your whiteness and give you a “tour” of the temple for a small bakshish, people selling fruit and colorful, endless flowers with which to decorate shrines, and money is being handed over right and left at these temples in order for people to do puja or devotion. There are an amazing number of incarnations of god, many of whom have devoted followings and temples addressed only to them. And it doesn’t even matter if the gods are Hindu, with Christian Indians decorating Mary and Jesus with red dots and flower garlands and dipping them in the holy rivers or Buddhist temples that also serve as Shiva temples. There are sculptures and mini-shrines everywhere of 6 armed, blue gods riding their animal mode of transport, carrying the tools that differentiate them, orange blobs, and sometimes just a phallic-shaped stone on a base called a “lingam” that represents Shiva.
None of this even touches on the different culture and geography of the north, at the foot of the Himalayas, seeped in Tibetan and Nepali culture, with cooler temperatures and more mild dispositions and less spicy (and interesting) food and massive mountains covered by stupas and prayer flags and low-land Indians on vacation escaping the heat and Sherpa porters carrying massive amounts of weight on their backs up the steep hillsides and tea plantations and monks. That is India too.
It is so hard to describe and to integrate and to understand and I think that the pictures Guy has been taking probably do the best justice to the places we have seen. Its a mind-blowing place and very complicated, but I think we are both really glad to have had the opportunity to travel in India and feel that there is much more of it to be explored.