“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
– John Steinbeck
After three flights, two layovers and one cab ride, 35 hours of travel in total, we arrived in Delhi, India. We checked into Jugaad Hostel, in the borough of Mohammadpur, at 9:00am. Our room was not ready but we were given a rundown of the city by a hostel employee in the common room. We were thrilled with our accommodations, and although we were exhausted and could have slept all day, we left to explore the huge city of Delhi.
We decided to make our way to Old Delhi, which was a ten minute Metro ride away. Although we knew that this Asian country would be much different than our own, we had no idea exactly what to expect. Our first feeling, in that Metro station on our first day there, was uneas. As we stood in line to get our Metro tokens we could, not only, physically feel the person in line behind us because they were literally touching us and pushing us forward, but we could also feel the eyes of every single other human being in that station fixated on us. We quickly realized that we were the visible minority, by a long shot, something neither of us had ever experienced before. The feeling of unease continued as we went through security checks on the way to our platform. We got in the same line and began to proceed through, when we were stopped and I was told to leave the line and join the other women in a separate line. Although we now know that these policies are in places all over India for women’s safety, we did not realize this at the time and were very taken back by the experience; feeling segregated and unequal. Nonetheless, we continued to Old Delhi with positive thoughts that we chose to come here and this was all part of the experience.
Little did we know that when we stepped out of the train station in Old Delhi we were in for the most intense case of culture shock we had ever had. It felt as though all 12.5 million people that live in the entire city of Delhi were surrounding us that day. We were shoulder-to-shoulder, being pushed and shoved, all the way down Chandni Chowk Road as we tried to make our way to the Red Fort. The only thing more distracting than the lack of personal space was the noises and shouting coming from all around. The chorus of horns coming from every car and tuk tuk on the road were the melody, paired with the vocals of every rickshaw driver asking if we needed a ride and every street vendor trying to sell us their wares. Through it all we struggled to breath as the air was thick, dusty and polluted and garbage that littered every street corner, gutter and sidewalk left a sour smell in the air. When we finally made it 300 meters down the road to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Red Fort, which felt like 10 miles because it took us 40 minutes to fight through the crowds, we had to stop to catch a breath and take it all in.
The Red Fort, Originally built as a residence for the emperor of India in 1648 but currently only housing museums, was magnificent from the outside, but we didn’t have the energy to wait in the lineup, which was miles long. Instead we walked around the outside and admired its magnitude. Just as we were starting to feel a bit of comfort we were approached by a young India boy who asked if he could take a selfie with us. In our confusion at the question we said no, unaware that we would be asked this request at least 10 more times while we were in India. We later learned that it has to do with young people’s fascination with white-skinned foreigners, but it was just another experience that made us feel uneasy. Although we planned on exploring more of the sites in Old Delhi, we were overwhelmed, exhausted and needed to sit down and take it all in, so we headed back to our hostel. Nothing could have prepared us for the sensory overload we experienced that first day. Jeff described it perfectly by stating, “You can see the pictures and read all about it, but you can’t feel it until you are here.”
Our second day in Delhi we were signed up for an Indian cooking class with Gourmet Desire. The class took place in the beautiful home of our instructor, Jyoti, in the borough of Haus Kaus. Also signed up for the class was a young Australian couple who we hit it off with right away. Jyoti was a wealth of knowledge, not only about Indian cuisine, but also about food and culture from many parts of the globe. We learned that food, language and religion is drastically different in each Indian state. Her class allowed us the opportunity to cook, and feast, on dishes from a variety of Indian states, and each dish was more delicious than the last. After filling our bellies Jyoti took us on a tour of a spice market where we had the opportunity to see the raw ingredients being ground into spices and to buy them fresh. It was a fantastic day of learning, eating and laughing and precisely what we needed after our frustrating day prior.
Our final day in Delhi we left the city and headed to Agra, home of the infamous Taj Mahal, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Train tickets to Agra for tourists must be purchased in advance of the day of travel from the Tourist Office in the train station, which was impossible to find. Regardless, we had purchased our tickets the day before. They had first class available for the ride there, but only second class available for the ride back. We took what we could get, but let’s just say that “first class” means many different things around the world. Nonetheless, we remained positive, as always, reminding ourselves again that it was all part of the experience.
In addition to the Taj Mahal, Agra has a few others interesting historical sites, so we began our exploration at the walled city of Agra Fort, which bore a striking resemblance to the Red Fort from the exterior. We spent two hours in Agra Fort and thoroughly enjoyed admiring the architecture and learning about the history of every structure, when each was built, by whom and for what purpose. It was the perfect starting point for our historical day in Agra.
We decided to walk the short distance between Agra Fort and the Taj, to our eventual dismay when we were asked by the hundredth time, “Tuk tuk?”. They looked at us like we were crazy when we said that we wanted to walk. We began to realize that this is a major reason for the severe pollution in India, the mass amount of diesel vehicles that are on the roads daily. As we looked around we noticed that no one walked anywhere. Regardless, we ventured on, getting lost many times as a result of the lack of street or directional signs and finally made our way to the majestic Taj Mahal, which was commissioned by emperor Shah Jahan in 1632, to be built as a tomb for his beloved wife and eventually for himself.
At first sight it appeared to be a mirage, not only because of its fame and our dreams about seeing it one day for so many years, but also because of its absolute astounding beauty and perfection, gleaming white against the blue backdrop of the Indian sky. We simply stood there for a while, just beyond the entrance gate, in awe that we were actually there…at the Taj Mahal! Once we got past the shock we enjoyed wandering through the grounds and made our way to the main mausoleum. At this point we were herded through, with hundreds of others, and only allowed a very limited amount of time in the small dark space, which was fine because there was not much to it. Once we exited I realized that, although still beautiful inside, the Taj Mahal’s true spectacle is from afar. With that in mind, we made our way back to the gate once again and sat on a bench to admire it in all its glory.
Our train for the journey back to Delhi was, of course, delayed one hour…and then two hours…and at long last we hopped on our second class cabin for the long ride back. A bird had pooped on my shoulder earlier that day, which my Mom had always told me was good luck. That luck came in the form of a talkative German traveller, who had been living in New Zealand for the past seven years. The three of us shared delightful conversation for all three hours of the train ride and he was the best New Zealand guide book we could have asked for. In addition to making the long train ride in second class that much more bearable, the conversation was the perfect way to end our day of ups and downs.
After three days in the crowded, chaotic city of Delhi, we were thrilled to be heading to the southern state of Goa. It was late evening when we arrived at The Nest and settled in our coco hut on Palolem Beach. We enjoyed a few beers on the beach where we could hear the crashing waves of the Arabian Sea, but not yet see the beautiful sites; we went to bed that night with anticipation in our hearts.
We had booked The Nest for five nights, four days. By our second day on Palolem Beach we already knew that length of time would not suffice. Although we are currently not working, in the typical sense of the word, we needed a vacation from our vacation. Five weeks on the road had done us in and we decided to change our plans to skip Mumbai and spend an extra three days in Goa. Delhi had given us a sense of Indian cities, and that they were not exactly our cup of tea. However sand, sun and all day happy hour…we could handle that!
Our days were spent swimming, sunning and sleeping; interrupted only by three delicious meals each day at any one of the numerous restaurants right on the beach. One day we got adventurous and rented a scooter, for only $6.00CAD, and ventured to a few other surrounding beaches and towns. In the evenings we enjoyed live music, beach bonfires and chatting with other travellers. We soaked in every minute of our rest and relaxation in Goa, but the highlight was most definitely not relaxing; the Silent Noise party at On the Rocks was amazing! Although Silent Discos have taken over the North American festival scene in recent years, they originated on Palolem Beach when backpackers wanted to party until 4:00am and locals wanted to sleep. The brilliant solution…play the music through wireless headphones, which everyone in the bar is wearing. On the Rocks had three incredible DJs to listen to and together we danced the night away, toes in the sand, head in the clouds.
At our last dinner on Palolem Beach we talked about what life lessons we were taking away from our time in India. First and foremost we left with true gratitude to call ourselves Canadian citizens. We had seen poverty and pollution in our past travels, but India really revealed to us what a clean, hospitable, friendly and forested country we had the privilege of calling home. Secondly, but equally as important, we were taught patience and tolerance. Although we have travelled for many years and thought we honestly were patient and tolerant people, our limits had never been tested until our two weeks in India. Nothing will test you like every train, bus and flight being late; being bud in every line because you’re moving too slow; being pushed, shoved and honked at in streets and markets; constantly feeling in your pockets to ensure your personal belongings are still there; etc. What helped me get through the frustrating times was living true to my mantra, “Only focus on the things that are within your control and let go of all else.” No country has ever given us the lessons that India did, and for that we are grateful.