Tag Archives: india

Classic India: Crossing the Ganges at 5 am

A lot of hilarious and crazy events took place during Kate and I’s week in Rishikesh. We took sitar lessons, I got stopped for a record number of photos with locals, the Ganges flooded (again), and we saw a man slap a cow in the face for eating his chapati. We adopted a dog for a few days with a local shop owner who named it Joy, we made friends with the man we bought water from every day to the point where when we left, he felt so sad he demanded a photo shoot and gave us free Oreos, and once again we spent way too much time drinking chai and talking about things decidedly, un-Indian.

But by far the most undeniably insane and memorable story comes from our first morning in Rishikesh, or rather, our journey there from the train station of Haridwar, when the chain of events that took place was so increasingly unbelievable and stressful the only possible time we could top it was the day Kate got bit by a dog in Jaisalmer and the resulting hospital visits and Googling of “rabies” made for one hell of a four day stay. But we’re not talking about Jaisalmer, we’re talking about Rishikesh. But to get to Rishikesh, we must first journey backward to Varanasi, where Kate and I booked an “overnight” train ride that would take us about 25 hours, in second class sleeper, to the Himalayas we so longed to gaze upon.

So, with our packs stored under our slatted bunks, we happily ate Oreos (the official snack of Kate and Erin in India) and listened to the hustle and bustle of the train car, engaging our bunk mates in talks of arranged marriages and saris and mendhi until they hopped off the train at their stop. New bunk mates joined us, angry, old, man bunk mates, and so Kate and I decided to take turns sleeping so that one of us could alert the other when our trained pulled into the station. Because here’s the thing about Indian trains- they don’t announce what the next stop is. No one tells you when to get off. And 98% of the time there’s not even any labeled signs in the train stations to tell you where you are. This meant Kate and I were (and now that I think back on this the mental image and what the Indian people must have been thinking cracks me up) jumping off the train at every. single. stop., frantically looking around for any sign of where we were, and, if we could not find it, literally just grabbing the closest person and asking, wide eyed, “IS THIS HARIDWAR?! HARIDWAR!?” Most of the time the answer was a resounding, “I don’t speak English”, but after awhile someone would say, “No, it is not,” and we would jump back on the (sometimes already pulling out of the station) train car to wait for the next stop. Cut us some slack, this was our first overnight train ride.

Cut to 3 am. It is my turn to sleep, and I am suddenly awoken by an extremely frantic Kate. “We’re here! Get your stuff, WE GOTTA GO!” So, I throw my backpack on, grab my day pack, pull the iPad out from the thin pillow I’d been hiding it under, and we attempt, unsuccessfully to disembark. Indian men are standing around, drinking chai, not moving from the narrow aisles we need to exit from. We start to ask nicely, then ask sternly, then, as we feel the train start to move again, we start to push. We are screaming, “Move, move, God, how rude!” as we elbow our way off the moving train and into the Haridwar train station.

Another thing about Indian train stations and, really, just India in general: people will sleep anywhere. We were stepping over and around families, all sleeping on the floor of the train station at 3 am, trying to get to the taxi stand. This took about three times as long as it should because when you have a backpack strapped to your back, and a daypack strapped to your front, and are clutching an iPad like an idiot in a third world country, you have a lot of people coming up to you asking if you need a ride, and a lot of people grabbing at you for what seems like inexplicable reasons until you notice the Apple product in your right hand. I quickly stuffed my iPad into my day pack, and we booked it out of there.

We made it off the train, at 3 am, into a strange town, full of people trying to swindle us, and we needed to get 25 miles to Rishikesh by tuk tuk or cab. It seemed like all we needed was to find a decently priced tuk tuk and we’d be home free…and then it started to pour down rain. We argued with a few tuk tuk drivers over what the price should be to Rishikesh, but after a few minutes of standing in the rain we relented and agreed to pay 800 rupees to get to our accommodation, The Green Hotel. So we climbed into the tuk tuk of a seemingly friendly 30-something Pakistani man (read: seemingly), and took off for Rishikesh.

The rain pounded down on the tuk tuk and we passed over bridges, through little towns and villages, and as we drove, we noticed hordes of people in orange shirts, walking along the roads, carrying buckets of milk and river water, flower wreaths, and incense sticks, now put out when the skies opened up to soak us to our bones. “Bolba, Bolba, Bolba,” they chanted. And Kate and I, confused, watched them fade behind us in the distance, but more would always be found walking the roads, barefoot and clad in orange, toward the rushing Ganges.

Our tuk tuk came to a stop. “I can take you no further,” our driver said, “the roads are flooded. Get out here and walk ten minutes that way, then you will be at your hotel”. We looked at each other, wide eyed. It was pouring rain, and we knew we were still in Haridwar. We weren’t even close to our hotel, and this man wanted us to get out and walk…where?

“No,” we blatantly refused, “You have to take us further. The roads aren’t flooded.”

“I cannot,” he explained, “but I will take your 800 rupees now.”

It was moments like this I was glad I had Kate as my travel buddy. “No way are we paying you 800 rupees to get dropped in the rain, man. Take us further or we aren’t paying you.”

“I canno-“, he couldn’t even finish before we watched two tuk tuks and a rickety old car speed past us on the road.

“Clearly, you can,” Kate said, and as we watched his face fall, we felt the tuk tuk rev its engine and start back up. We were back on the road, passing more pilgrims in orange, as rain continued to pelt us mercilessly.

About ten minutes later at the edge of Haridwar we came to another stop. “I can take you no further, the roads are flooded,” and this time he meant business. He hopped out of the tuk tuk, grabbed our packs, and threw them out of the tuk tuk and onto the wet, rapidly flooding ground. “Okay, well you’re high if you think we’re paying you 800 rupees,” Kate said, shoving 300 rupees at him.

Furious, the man demanded the price we set. Kate refused to pay, and as I watched them argue it occurred to me I should probably grab the rest of our stuff out of the tuk tuk, as I watched the man’s face grow red with anger. “You said 800 rupees! We agreed!” he was yelling. “I agreed I’d pay you 800 rupees to take us to our hotel. You are dropping us in the middle of nowhere in the rain. You’re lucky I gave you 300,” was Kate’s decidedly awesome response. With both of our 60 L backpacks on me, I handed her my day pack. Then she looked at me and just said, “Run.”

So, with our packs hanging off my weary shoulders and our day packs soaking through with water to destroy any and all electronics, we took off running (well, I was more waddling than anything) as the man yelled at us to come back. But we didn’t even look back, and instead, we disappeared into a huge crowd of orange pilgrims, our blue and grey backpacks the only things differentiating us from the crowd. And just like that, we were free, lost, and wetter than ever.

With absolutely no idea where we were, at 4 am, we began asking people how to get to Rishikesh, how to get to the Green Hotel, how to get some place dry. No one spoke English, and instead, they would grab our arms and lead us forward, chanting “Bolba, Bolba!” until we shook ourselves loose to ask another stranger. Finally, after about half an hour of walking in the rain we found a yoga studio with a man standing outside, and we rushed up to him, begging for help. He let us use his bathroom, dry off with some old rags, and get our rain jackets out to wrap around our day packs. Then, he pointed across the Ganges. “You cross that bridge, you’ll be in Rishikesh.”

Let’s just talk about this bridge: it was small, rickety, swaying in the wind, and absolutely every inch of it was covered in pilgrims. It was a swinging, orange bridge over the massive, rushing, Ganges, which poured at a hundred miles an hour downward from the Himalayas as rain added to it’s mighty flow. We were terrified. It was 4 in the morning. We were wet, cold, and in the middle of the Durga festival. We had no choice. The man told us unless we were going to pay him, we had to go.

So we went. And walked with the pilgrims, chanting Bolba, trying to make light of the day’s events, across the bridge, swinging and swaying and being pushed and prodded and pulled until we reached the other side. The other side, it turns out, was full of cows.

I mean at least fifty cows in a quarter mile radius. All of them horned, and stressed out, and running us into corners. It was still raining, we were still lost, and the sound of “Bolba!” was still ringing in our ears. We asked a police officer where to go and he pointed up a hill. So we walked up the hill only to find a dead end and no Green Hotel. We asked an old man where to go and he pointed left, so we went left, only to find another dead end and no Green Hotel, only more pilgrims, and more cows. We must have looked desperate, because a young man came up to us with his wife and asked if we were okay. We were absolutely not okay, we told him, and we needed to get to the Green Hotel, or be sacrificed to the Ganges, whichever was easier.

The Green Hotel? That was his cousins place! He would take us there right away. And in a moment of weakness, Kate and I trusted yet another stranger to get us there safely. And, in a moment of rare fortune, he and his wife took us to an alley way, and said, at the end of this street, you will be there.

We walked, expecting another dead end, but found, instead, The Green Hotel.

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My Experience as a Female Traveler in India

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India is the #1 place I was urged not to go when telling people my travel destinations before leaving on this trip. Even though Cambodia is notoriously dangerous. Even though Egypt is literally in an all out war. Even though Somalians are kidnapping westerners in Kenya and ransoming or murdering them. Even though South Africa’s public transportation and streets are notoriously still segregated and extremely dangerous. It was always India, every time, that warranted the most intense and negative responses.

“Why would you want to go there?!”

“That’s so dangerous!”

“Aren’t you afraid you’re going to be raped!?”

“I would NEVER go there. I have no desire to see anything in India so badly I’d risk my life.”

And I appreciate the concern, because it’s a real problem here. It was reported, while we were in Thailand, that a woman is raped every twenty minutes in Delhi. That’s crazy. I mean, that is a staggering and horrifying statistic. Rape of foreign women, and western women in particular, has all but quadrupled in the last few months here in India. Violent attacks on westerners are becoming more and more common. And at the end of the day it’s a third world country so the harassment factor, the groping factor, and the condescending men would, we knew, be in abundance. But to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been all that bad. Surprisingly so, I suppose.

Upon our arrival in Delhi my father had insisted we check ourselves into a hotel on his dime. So we found a deal on hotels.com and checked ourselves into a plush hotel room in a hotel equipped with metal detectors and baggage scanners much like an airport, security guards posted at the elevators, and an extremely cautious staff. After a glorious and free breakfast buffet, which has become the #1 reason I love nice hotels, we headed to concierge to inquire about seeing the Red Fort, the temples, and other landmarks in Delhi. Just a bit of innocent sightseeing.

The look on the concierge’s face was grave when we told him we couldn’t afford to hire a car for 8,000 rupees a day (about $130), we didn’t have a guide, or an armed guard, or a driver. “I implore you, please do not go out on your own. Do not get into any cabs, do not get into any rickshaws, and do not walk on the streets. It is far too dangerous.”

Uh…what? What can we do then?

Turns out, borrow their DVD of Troy and promise to return it in 24 hours, then go watch it in our room and drink tea until it was time to catch our train to Agra the next day.

Again- we were IMPLORED that as women traveling alone we not take the cheapest option. You need to be in the safest car, they told us. You are pretty girls, young girls, Western girls, American girls. You have no men with you. You are not on a tour. The danger is great for you.

Not one to put my safety at risk or be reckless, because there’s a huge difference between recklessness and adventurousness, we paid the extra bit of money for the nicer train car, and took the earliest one, since we were told that was the safest and had the most tourists.

Well, there were three other tourists in our car. The rest were locals, and despite a few longheld stares, mostly looks of curiousity, we made it to our destination of Agra. This happened almost everywhere we went. The vehement warnings, the promise that this was the safest or best, and the sheer and resounding fact that 99% of the time it wasn’t. It was just as dangerous, or dodgy, or dirty, or what have you as anything else.

Let me be clear, though. India is a very poor country. Overwhelmingly poor. Crazy poor. Unbelievably poor. People are just pooping on the sides of the train tracks, children are running around naked, people are living in slums that go on for miles, there are dead bodies floating in rivers and severed limbs in the street, and everyone wants your money. But I mean, can you blame them? The important difference to note is that while people will do pretty much anything to get at the rupees in your pocket, they never seem to want to take your life, or your dignity. They really just want your money.

When people in India see that Kate and I are traveling alone, just two women, without any men, without any guide, they immediately begin telling us what NOT to do. Don’t talk to this person, don’t believe this scam, don’t get into this car, don’t go out between these hours, etc. etc. etc. The warnings are endless and constant, but at the end of the day, most are scare tactics used so that you will use their person, believe their scam, get into their car or tuk tuk, eat at their restaurant, etc.

And being a Westerner, things can get pretty mental pretty quickly. People take your picture because you are white. Indian people at the monuments ask for pictures with you because you are white. If you oblige them, a line starts to form and the queue goes on and on with people who just want a photo with you. At the monuments I oblige because I think it’s hilarious and when the hell is a perfect stranger going to want my photo again, especially when I’ve got pit stains and no make up on, but on the streets, it’s always a firm no. The best part of the picture taking is that a lot of the time they want to shake your hand, like you’re the President of the United States, in the picture, and make it into a professional looking portrait. I love it, but as soon as we left the monuments, I would always put my scarf around my head and hold my bag close to my body. There’s a CIA saying that “paranoia is the perfect level of awareness”, and I when it comes down to it I’d just rather be safe than polite when out on the streets. But I did the same thing in Cambodia, in Thailand, and in Vietnam. In poor countries your property is always more at risk, it’s just a reality of traveling. I can safely say, though, in none of those countries did I ever feel truly in danger, like my life was threatened, ever.

And on top of that, traveling is amazing! It is glorious, freeing, and everyone should be so lucky as to get the chance to visit anywhere, but especially India. I truly mean that. And so it upset me, on the day we left Mumbai, to see the news headlines were of yet another gang rape in the very city we were staying in, just hours prior. And then, a Facebook post of a girl from the University of Chicago who had studied abroad in India and come home with PTSD due to constant harassment and multiple rape attempts. I was so, so very upset to read about her experience because mine had truly been so different. Kate and I discussed the story, the rape, these women, our fellow women, and much else in India and came to a few conclusions. First of all, men in India are men at their worst. It’s that simple. The culture of arranged marriages has made it so that men do not need to impress women. They spit, fart, burp, leer, pee anywhere and everywhere, make rude comments, and talk way, way too close to your face for anyone to be comfortable. They grope you when given the chance, so the important thing is to not let them.

I know that sounds insensitive. I know the general consensus when I say this will be, “Hey Erin, nobody ASKS to be groped. No one TRIES to be groped by strangers.” And I know that. Believe me, as someone who was groped in India, I know that. But every single time I got groped was the moment I let go of myself. The moment I felt comfortable next to a strange man was the moment he would grab my breast, or my butt, or brush too closely and smell my hair like a creepy, misogynist weirdo. As soon as you let your guard down, you get groped. That’s just the facts. That’s India. And that’s really really sad, but it’s true. Secondly, India is beautiful but it is cruel. Everything is brown, but there are these beautiful moments of vivid color. Men are dogs there, to be sure, but I also met some of the loveliest men during all of my travels in India. Thirdly, in third world countries, it seems like everyone has an agenda, and that really sucks, and they usually do, but if you can get past that there is so much incredible beauty you will never see anywhere else.

I loved my time in India. Did I love every minute? Of course not. But through the rough times Kate and I kept laughing, and kept making memories, as lame as that sounds, and it brought us through it. Some of my favorite memories are from India. Some of my best stories too. This journey would have felt incomplete without India. I miss India already- it’s food, culture, religion, and the people. And as a woman, I urge other women to travel to India. I urge you travel with a friend, and keep your wits about you, and make smart choices. But don’t be scared. Don’t fear a random act of violence that could and does happen all over the world. Go to India, and take pictures with babies on their parents’ camera phones, and eat 100 pieces of garlic naan and then question why you aren’t losing weight like everyone said you would, and visit the Taj Mahal and marvel at its marble, and explain to women on the train why you aren’t interested in an arranged marriage to shock, awe, and disapproval, and walk miles in the rain and across the Ganges to your hostel during the Durga festival in Rishikesh and have the time of your damn life.

Being a woman in India means bindis and henna and chai and saris and bangles. It’s beautiful if you make it beautiful, just like anything and everything else. India is poverty and misogyny and stray dogs and cows and camels. It’s a severed leg in the street and trash all over the roads and wondering if the shit you just stepped in was animal or human. It’s pimped out tuk tuks and longheld stares and being groped by an old man in a haveli. But it’s also the most beautiful temples you’ve ever seen and smiling children and amazing old forts and chai sixteen times a day. It’s colorful saris and bhang shops and camel safaris and spicy curries. It’s naan and chapati and roti. It’s the desert, the Himalayas and the beach. It’s lotus flowers and Hanuman and Ganesha and yoga. It’s one of the best and most memorable places I’ve ever been and I love it with all my heart. There are things about it I would change. But there are things I would not change for the world.

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September 5, 2013 · 6:42 pm