Ah India! Where to begin? Since I haven’t blogged from the beginning as I had wanted to do, I am going to attempt a sort of summary of the first 3 plus months in India. I could refer to my journal which I have kept pretty faithfully and go in chronological order but that seems like no fun. I would rather do it Ike style and just start and see where I end up. First some basics. After, my 5 months volunteering in Israel, and seeing that I hadn’t figured my life out, I decided to go to India, Why not? That’s what people seem to do and most of the time, I do fall into the people category. I went home for a month or rather stayed with my Mom in Charleston since I moved out of my apartment in NY when I quit my mailman job back in January.
I did a lot of research before coming to India and settled on not making any concrete plans. Just 4 months and a 38 liter backpack. I learned the overpacking lesson the hard way in Israel. It’s amazing when you start traveling to see how little you need. First some generalizations about India. Of course, I really don’t like generalizations and I feel it’s an especially bad idea when it comes to something as huge and diverse as a place like India, a bit like seeing a 3 oz cup of ocean water and trying to make educated statements about the ocean. No waves, no fish. The ocean must be salty water and that’s it. But this obviously isn’t a definitive guide to India, it’s just the few towns of India that Ike has been in through the eyes of Ike. (Sometimes I like to refer to myself in the 3rd person) It’s more fun. But back to the generalizations. So India is big. Really really, really big! When I go to a new town, anything under 10 hours away is close. Right now, I’m on a 40 plus hour train ride to Chennai. Trains are the way people get around if it’s any considerable distance and I’ll talk about them more in the next paragraph. There are a lot of people. 1.3 billion I’ve been told, but no, I didn’t count them myself. Whereas the family car in the US is a minivan or an SUV, the family car in India is the motorcycle. There are a lot of motorcycles and yes, you often times see whole families riding on them. No helmets, of course. It still shocks me slightly to see the little kids on them. You’ll see a 4 or 5 year old sitting there just clutching the back of her dad or perched in front holding on tightly. You can easily fit 5 to 6 people on a motorcycle. Horns. They are so loud. Sometimes, I think it’s like an arms race to see whose horn is loudest. There are no traffic rules in India so horns are king. Whoever blows their horn the loudest and keeps going has the right of way. Sometimes on a blind curve, the horn is the only thing to alert oncoming cars that you’re there. There are police but I haven’t seen one ticket been issued or anyone ever being pulled over. They have police road blocks where they block off half the road but it seems mostly decorative.
Trains. Once you get out of the very far north where it’s too mountainous for trains, the trains are everywhere. Quite affordable and you can make really great friends, but at the same time, require a great deal of patience. I’m paying 1000 rupees which is 15 dollars for my 40 hour ride to Chennai right now, though if I hadn’t gone through an agent, it would have only been 865 rupees. First the classes. You have general class which I’ve ridden but only for short stints, say no more than 4 hours. It is super cheap but you can end up standing by the toilet for 2 hours as I did on the way to Amritsar. Under a dollar for that ride. There is no reserved seating in general class so often times you end up standing. I’ve heard stories of riding with the chickens, but I haven’t had the pleasure of a train ride with chickens yet. Sleeper class is what I’m in now and it’s still affordable and there are reserved seats during the day which fold into a place to lie down at night. It’s a matter of fighting for your seat though, or deciding to be nice. Often times, after the ticket taker comes through, people from general come join you in sleeper class. Invariably fighting ensues. I was trying to be kind and keep my patience but I have to say I was getting a bit frustrated yesterday. Things were starting to look like general class, minus the chickens. People crammed in the seats and people sleeping on the floor at night. Then you have the more expensive seats, 3AC and 2AC. They are air conditioned and though I haven’t traveled by either class yet, I am told it really is reserved and you don’t have to fight for your space. If you can stay patient and keep your cool. You can have fun and make great friends. Indians are typically very eager to meet and talk to me since I’m white and then when they hear I’m from the US, they get even more excited. I am reminded how kind and friendly they can be and even though people can be a little cold in the beginning, after a few hours, people really loosen up. You can buy anything on the train. Chai, any sort of food or snack you can imagine from thali to fruit or candy to samosas. People come through all day long selling stuff. There is always the zipper replacement guy who can replace your zipper in 90 seconds give or take. Newpapers, hot plates, blow up cushions, nail clippers, post cards, chargers, combs. Pretty much anything you could ever need. And then there are the transgenders. They come through the train and clap and people just hand them money. The first time I saw this, I didn’t know what to make of it, but now I come to expect it when I ride the train. I’m not sure, but I have heard that people believe that if they don’t give them money, they will get some sort of curse put on them. Anyway, there is no lack of entertainment when riding the train.
Things are quite cheap here, part of the reason I came. I try to live on the 10 US dollar a day or 650 rupees budget, which is quite possible. My lodging is typically under 300 rupees (5USD) a day and that leaves roughly 350 rupees for food. I was scared of street food in the beginning because of some of the blogs I had read but now that is my first choice. The town I was just in, Bodhgaya, I found a guy who made 10 rupee (15 cent) omelettes and they were really, really good! Until another Hindu festival started in which no meat or animal products are allowed. Goodbye omelettes. They have a lot of festivals. I mean a lot. I asked somebody one time how anything happens in India because of all the festivals. Festivals are loud. They have these trucks with tons of speakers and they ride around in the street playing really loud music Oftentimes going all night, this has proved to be something that I don’t exactly love but I’m learning to accept it. I thought of converting everybody to Buddhism, but there are a lot of people, remember? Plus that’s not really how Buddhism works, but I digress. A bit of Chow Mein, which I’ve been eating a lot of is usually 40 to 50 rupees. Water is 20 to 30 rupees per liter depending on where you are. If I’m in a town and find a restaurant I really love or have friends going there, then I’ll splurge. Typically, you have to haggle the price for everything, unless you buy something packaged and then it will have a factory price printed on it, which makes things much easier. Bananas are usually 5 rupees each depending on the size. Haggling can get tiresome and sometimes I know I’m not getting the “local” price but in a sense, It’s almost fair that I pay a little more. I just don’t like being totally ripped off. It’s always the hardest when it comes to rickshaw rides. I love the towns where I can hitchhike. I started getting motorcycle rides in Rishikesh because I was staying a bit far away from where my friends were. (It was cheaper, what can I say?) For some reason, I seem to stand out in India, maybe the beard? Or my skin color? Or my slightly eccentric ways about dressing. I enjoy it most of the time. I have been in more selfies than I can count. I think coming to India is as close to being a celebrity as I’ll ever be. It can be tiresome and sometimes I just want to be able to go somewhere without being stared at.
Another thing about India is the poverty. It’s something that I knew was going to be hard and it has been. Over and over, I ask myself why? Why was I born with the advantages and in the country where I was born? Why are these people on the street? Why are there so many people with deformities? Missing limbs and other physical impairments.Do I deserve what I have. Maybe I do maybe I don’t, but it certainly has made me more grateful for what I do have. It also makes me seriously question the belief in my head that material possessions bring happiness. In the guidebooks, they say it’s best not to give the homeless money for a few reasons. One being that, there are always so many homeless people and if you give to one, they will all want some. The other is a harsh reality, but a lot of the homeless and disabled are actually controlled by the mafia. They are forced to beg and get in trouble if they don’t bring back money. So if you give them money, you are just supporting the mafia and encouraging this practice, but as my friend Maria pointed out, they will get in trouble if they come back without money. So what to do? It’s been over 3 months and every time I go by a beggar, I feel bad. Once in awhile, I will give them a little, but I know it’s just a drop in the bucket. I was talking to another friend and she said sometimes looking them in the eye and smiling, acknowledging them and giving them some dignity can mean a lot. I imagine myself on the street or someone I love and the thought of people passing me all day and ignoring me is almost worse than the material poverty. I have taken to offering a silent blessing, “May you be happy and free from suffering.” I feel I am at least doing something, but still it troubles me.
In Dharmkot, where I spent over a month our favorite place was called Trek and Dine. I was going every morning for a while because they have the best buttered toast ever! I know, you are thinking, seriously? But yes, buttered toast. My mouth is watering right now. They made this fresh sourdough bread every day and then I would order it toasted with butter. At 60 rupees or 1 dollar it’s qutie expensive when compared to street food, but it was so amazing. Plus Dharmkot was so small, just one street, that they didn’t have street food. Dharmkot was probably my favorite place in India. About 10 km from Dharamsala and just up the road from Mcleodganj, which is the town where the Dalai Lama lives. Originally I went there because a girl I had met in Israel when I was there 2 years ago was doing a yoga teacher training course and I thought it would be nice to meet up with her. Though we didn’t get to know each other that well in Israel, I figured it’s always nice to see somebody you know, especially when traveling solo as I am. We ended up becoming best friends, for real! Thinking about her as I type now, makes me happy. We just really really connected. One of those people who I can just talk about anything with. It’s hard to figure out what I did for over a month in Dharmkot, but it’s just so easy to stay there. Very unlike most cities in India. It’s quiet, so quiet. There are mountains and waterfalls close by to climb which I did on several occasions. I loved walking down the street and knowing I would always run into somebody I knew. It is pretty much just a tourist town but not big enough to be annoying. Just the right balance. I think 90% of the tourists were young Israelis on a similar quest that I’ve been on, the only difference being that I’m not trying to recover after a traumatic army stint. Just not wanting to settle down to the world of jobs and cars and bills. I really loved being around all the Israelis. Since I’m Jewish, I felt like part of the family and I got to see a different side of Israelis than I ever really saw in my time in Israel.
Anna. The cutest child in India! Case closed:)
I stayed in an amazing guest house tucked away in the woods with the best family ever. They had a daughter who was 2 who I got more and more attached to over the course of my time. Anna! I would see her almost every morning. She was just the most adorable 2 year old you’ve ever seen with a smile that could melt all the suffering in the world. The day I left, I said goodbye and the family asked where I lived and then said I could take her with me. Believe me, I was tempted. They weren’t serious of course, but this sort of thing happens in India. You sometimes meet people and they just give you the baby to hold. We referred to it after awhile as “surprise adoption” It was only 150 rupees a night or a little more that 2 dollars. This left plenty of money for food and the amazing Bhagsu cake. Oh Bhagsu cake. Mmmmmm!! There was another little town about 10 minutes away called Bhagsu where they made this dessert called Bhagsu cake. You could go and have Bhagsu cake with ice cream for 60 rupees. Best 60 rupees of my life! I won’t try to describe Bhagsu cake, you just have to experience it for yourself. I made so many friends in Dharmkot and felt so safe. Part of the reason I stayed so long, plus my friend B.
I had a really bad experience when I first arrived in Delhi. I won’t detail the whole thing, but the bottom line is that I got ripped off really bad. Of course, I try to look at life differently now, and so I don’t like to think of myself as a victim ever. Not so much that it was my fault, but maybe I needed to learn a lesson. I have been pursuing it with my bank for the last few months in an effort to get the money back but it’s not looking good right now. I was talking to a friend the other day, and I told her I don’t want to be angry, I really want to let it go but I can’t seem to do it. She told me to see the money as something I gave willingly and offer it so that all sentient being may be free from suffering. I know, I’ve been leaning heavily in the Buddhist direction lately and probably you are thinking I’m a bit crazy, but when she said this, it brought me a lot of peace. Perception is everything. Anyway, I had a really hard time in the beginning. I remember Facetiming one of my good friends back home and just crying. I thought India was a horrible place and everybody just wanted to rip me off. I wanted to go home. I carried around this distrust for Indians, well, mostly Indian men for a long time. I realize now how unfair that was and how harmful it was for me. When I first got here, I just saw everybody as Indians, without taking into account the individuality of each person. I’ve started to see that people are people just like me. No matter what country, race or religion. We all just want to be happy and avoid suffering. Like any other country, India has it’s share of people who do bad things and people who do good things. Though I used to really hate the men who ripped me off, I try to think of them now as people who are suffering. Though it doesn’t excuse it, India is a country with a lot of poverty and when they see me, a white man, from America no less, they probably figure that a few hundred dollars is no big deal.
Anyway, my trip started getting better when I went on a trek outside of Srinagar with a young German couple. They were my first real friends in India and we became so close. Traveling relationships are always more intense. I can spend a week traveling with someone and feel like I know them better than some of the kids I grew up with. The trek was beautiful and the guide we ended up with was a truly special human being. Living a simple life with his wife and kids. He takes people trekking. Though younger than me, he had a certain kind of maturity and energy about him that I just loved. I remember wanting to stay in the woods and go trekking with him for a few months. Our pack horse was named Jenny and we lovingly referred to her as Jenny from the block. The trek was only 2 days and 1 night and even though I didn’t sleep much at all because the ground was so hard and cold, I was happy. I learned about the chai shop phenomenon in India. They are everywhere. Though India is a very undeveloped country in certain ways, there is always a chai shop. They sell more than chai. Snacks, drinks, basic necessities. You never have to worry about running out of things. You’ll find them at the top of mountains, really big mountains and waterfalls.
I ended up heading to Leh next, which is in the north of India. I was going mostly because another friend from Israel runs a Jewish house there and I thought it would be great to see him. I ended up really loving Leh. I was trying to find a guesthouse when I got there and after walking around for a little while, a white van pulled up and a very sweet lady told me to get in. I was a little worried to say the least. I don’t normally just get into white vans, but she seemed so sweet so I got in. She and her husband turned out to be some of the most loving and beautiful people. There is a very different vibe in Ladakh. It has a heavy Buddhist influence and people are much more relaxed. I ended up staying in there guesthouse for a mere 300 rupees (5 dollars) a day which included 2 delicious home-cooked meals. I remember crying when I got to there guesthouse because things had been so rough in the beginning and I couldn’t believe how good they were. I was in Leh for a few weeks. I loved going into town to my favorite German bakery and getting a chocolate croissant. Though more bready than a true croissant, they were still quite good. The German bakery phenomenon was something I encountered in a lot of the towns I was in. Though not owned by Germans, the only thing I can figure is that it was something they do to make tourists more comfortable. This makes me think of cows. So of course, cows are sacred in India, except in 5 states, where there are no restrictions on slaughtering cows, but for the most part, cows are sacred. This means there are a lot of cows who just roam the streets, apparently homeless, looking for food. Often times you see them eating garbage. Cardboard. They eat so much cardboard. They are a general nuisance but they are sacred, so there doesn’t seem to be much you can do. They are also quite fat for homeless, cardboard eating cows, which I haven’t been able to figure out either. Now here’s something to chew on: India is one of the top exporters of beef in the world.
My German friends, Sven and Julia came to Leh too and we hung out a bit there. I went to the Jewish House for Shabbat one Friday and ended up meeting some Israelis. We got talking and it turned out they were planning on doing a trek that I had wanted to do but didn’t want to go alone. It’s called the Markha Valley Trek and it can be done fairly easily without a guide. We did it in 5 days and the beauty is that you don’t have to carry food or tents because there are homestays where you can pay about 800 rupees and stay for the night as well as getting all your food. Deliciously prepared. It’s also a chance to interact with the real India. The little villages tucked away. Disconnected from the world but much better off for it. One morning I was flossing my teeth like a good person should, and the wife and kids were just staring at me. I realized they probably had never seen anyone floss their teeth. Flossing doesn’t seem to be a big deal in India so I’m glad I brought my own stash. The terrain on the Trek was really beautiful but in a different way than Srinigar had been. Srinigar was lush and green and Ladakh is dry and barren. I still found it to be equally picturesque and the stones were so fascinating. Often, you could see the different colors in the same stone. So distinct, it almost looked like somebody had painted it. The 4 Israelis I hiked with were really great, putting up with me for 5 days. One of them kept making me laugh so hard I couldn’t walk, and sometimes, I had to tell him to stop. We reached the end and though I developed a wicked cramp on the last day and I was quite sore, I was happy. When I got back to the guesthouse, Julia took care of me and gave me medicine. Even coming to check up on me. Sven and Julia were so, so good to me!
We decided to head to Manali next which is usually the next stop on the tourist trail or as is sometimes referred to by the Israelis as the “hummus trail” One of the scariest 2 day bus rides of my life over insane mountainous roads. The first day was supposed to be around 17 hours but because of some issues with the brakes, it ended up being 22. After waiting around for 5 hours, the brakes had apparently been fixed with a tshirt and some duct tape. We got back on the bus, hoping that this wasn’t the day we were all going to find out those sticky afterlife questions I’ve been pondering lately. At one point balancing on 3 wheels, we all shifted to the non-edge side of the bus hoping that maybe our weight would be of some help. Along with Sven and Julia, Simon and Jodie were now part of the gang. They were from Australia and a lot of fun to be traveling with. Simon was hilarious and has a beard that makes mine look like a moustache. We also picked up Emily, one of the first, fellow Americans I met along the way. We all stayed together in a guesthouse in Manali called Rocky’s, which turned out to have really good food. The whole town was filled with really good restaurants, and 5 days of eating and laughing ensued. Manali was the home of the 10 rupee forest which we walked through quite a lot to get from the old town where we were staying to the new town. It killed me every time as spending money always does. Like, who pays 15 cents to walk through a forest? I did my best to smile and smell the proverbial roses but it was a struggle every time.
Crossing a river in a hand-powered wooden crate during a trek.Post-hike selfies with the village kids