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Gandhi & Khan

India is a sensory overload. There is no other way to describe the uniqueness of this proud country.

Indian BoySight: cats eating sewage soaked garbage, men openly urinating in the street, people riding atop train cars, amazing clifftop views.

Hearing: loud belching, incessant car horns, different Hindi dialects.

Smell: delicious Indian food and raw sewage at the same time.

Touch: marble of the Taj Mahal, friendly then aggressive monkeys, filthy squat toilets.

Taste: naan, curry, tea, dangerous tap water.

India GateWhat better place to wrap up the insanity of India than in its capital, New Delhi? With a burgeoning population showing no signs of slowing, this metro city area of nearly nineteen million can be chaotic one moment and peaceful the next. Unlike most Indian cities, New Delhi is relatively fresh having been founded by the British in just 1911 (there are older parts of Delhi). There are a multitude of interesting sights to spy so we hired Tumar as our driver for the day and saw much of the sprawling metropolis. Our first destination was the Laxminarayan Temple which was inaugurated in 1939 by Mahatma Gandhi under the condition the sacred place would be open to every person, regardless of caste. Next we spent some time around the red sand stone India Gate that honors the 90,000 fallen soldiers during World War I. It was an impressive monument to say the least. After a quick stop at the Qutb Minar, the world’s tallest brick minaret, we took a pit stop at a textile shop. After a marathon negotiating session, Ash picked out a gorgeous bed cover adorned with exquisite beads. Carrying around six pounds of fabric in an already full pack was a joy not to be missed.

India Gate From Afar New Delhi from Rooftop of Pearl Plaza Hotel

By far our favorite sight on the tour was the immaculate Lotus Temple. We checked our shoes at the underground dugout then performed a loop around the enormous white flower. The reflecting pools surrounding the 27 free-standing white marble petals gleamed in the bright sun. Ash and I found a bench from where we spent twenty minutes watching the interesting people admire the temple. The next hour was spent inhaling the life of Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma) inside her residence turned museum. As the first female Prime Minister in the otherwise male dominated India, the assassinated Indira Gandhi represents feminism in the Subcontinent. The sidewalk on which she took her final stroll is now clad in crystal and a sheet of clear glass marks the spot where she fell.

Indira Gandhi Crystal Path Lotus Temple

Finally, we made it to the spot I was looking forward to all day, Raj Ghat where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. During India’s independence movement, Mahatma was their fearless leader who pioneered the idea of non-violent civil disobedience. At the age of 78, Bapu (as he is referred to in India) was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist prior to his leading a prayer meeting. After cremation, urns were sent across India for additional memorial services in his honor. The grounds of Raj Ghat are pristine for the most part, yet we witnessed a woman shove a styrofoam cup into a bush not more than ten feet from the cremation spot. We made one last quick stop at New Delhi’s Red Fort with its intimidating entrance before bidding adieu to Tumar.

Raj Ghat Red Fort

The following day was spent on foot exploring Connaught Place. This center of finance and commerce was under much construction yet it was easy to see its urban garden appeal. From the first day in India, every television and newspaper had broadcast the controversy over My Name is Khan. The ruffled feathers were a result of the lead actor, Sha Rukh Khan, supporting the inclusion of Pakistani players in the Indian Premier League (cricket). This created such a stir that no theaters in Mumbai would screen the movie for fear of violence. So we found a theater near Connaught Place where we even had to smuggle our point-and-shoot camera through metal detectors by separating the battery from the camera. The controversy over the actor wasn’t very significant to us, but once we viewed the Hindi film (no subtitles though much of it is in English), Ash and I were filled with our own angst. The feature picture, filmed partly in the USA, is about a Muslim man who suffers from Apserger’s syndrome. His disability is mistaken as suspicious behavior and he is subsequently detained by LAX airport security. As the main character journeys to meet President Obama in order to clear his name as a terrorist, Americans are depicted as religious bigots post 9/11. The message was so powerful that an anti American feeling was palpable in the room. Part of me wanted to stand before the packed house and rebuke many of the film’s themes and the other part wanted to flee for fear of bodily harm. Once outside the theater, we both calmed down and two helpful Indian men assisted us in getting a rickshaw at the local price. Once again, the kindness of the Indian people shined through. Do yourself a favor and rent My Name is Khan and see for yourself how this Bollywood film unfairly portrays ordinary Americans.

School Boys, LOVED Posing for Photos Streets of New Delhi

India will forever hold a special place in our hearts and minds. One minute Ash is dry heaving from the filth and the next our taste buds are watering in anticipation of scrumptious food. Without a doubt, the locals are the friendliest and most helpful people we have met on the world road.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) If you want to push your comfort limits, go to India. If you want some of the best food in the entire world, go to India. If want an authentic experience hard to find elsewhere, go to India. It won’t be a vacation in the traditional sense, but more of an adventure.

2) In the bigger cities, hire a personal driver with air conditioning for around $30 for eight hours. You will cover a lot of ground while learning about India firsthand from a tried and true resident.

3) Be careful with your timing when traveling to India as the Summer can be brutally hot, hitting well over 100 degrees. If some of the smells were intense at 70 degrees, we can only imagine what baking trash would smell like in triple digit temperatures.

3…2…1… Action: Taj Mahal, Rickshaws & Monkeys Monkeying Around

The sun is rising on Agra’s majestic Taj Mahal in this dawn video:

Check out the streets of Agra during this evening rickshaw ride:

Monkeys monkeying around Agra’s Red Fort:

This time the monkeys play King of the Shrub then Ash and I realize that we are in such a historical place:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Though cute and fun to watch, monkeys that have grown accustomed to a human presence can be quite aggressive. While Ash was enticing a young monkey to come closer to the camera, the baby’s mother jumped on her back while unleashing a terrible howl. As I helped spring the angry creature from Ashley, another monkey scratched my leg. You have been warned, beware monkeys!

Taj Mahal & Rabid Monkeys

Short flight or twenty-three hour train ride? Smiling flight attendants or pushy touts? Air conditioned waiting area or platforms filled with hogs and sacs of grain? The choice was obvious. Train.

Mumbai to Agra Train - Bathroom Mumbai to Agra Train - Bathroom Sink Taj Mahal East Gate

Agra Pet Pig Who Happens to Dine On TrashIt was the Indian education we yearned to experience. Sure, utilizing the squat toilet aboard the listing train was like performing brain surgery aboard a rocket ship. But for one long day and an even longer night, Ash and I became just another traveler across the Subcontinent towards Agra. Awoken before dawn with the head scarf of a yapping Indian in my face, a special Valentine’s Day card for Ash, and dang good curry were all part of the journey on rails.

At 9:30pm the following night, the train lumbered into the Agra Train Station and as we watched it chug West, a horrible stench engulfed our nasal passages. Such is traveling India. Desperate to get some sleep and a hot shower, the rickshaw dropped us a short walk from the Taj’s East Gate and the Sheela Hotel. We checked in only to discover our room was outfitted with a bucket that the staff would kindly fill with boiling water to bathe. We gladly handed over an additional $2 for a room with a proper shower!

Taj Mahal At Dawn Taj Mahal At Dawn with Minaret

Taj Mahal & AshWith the crescent moon still draped in white satin, we waited patiently for the gates to the storied Taj Mahal to swing open. Once they did, we were among the first one hundred tourists on the hollowed grounds. It was as if we had a private invitation to an exclusive viewing. And there it was, far across a vast garden and reflecting pool. The beautiful and entrancing Taj Mahal. Considered the greatest example of Mughal architecture in the world, which combines components of Persian, Indian, and Islamic styles, the Taj was completed in 1653. Thousands of craftsmen, artisans, and heavy laborers strained for twenty-three years to construct Emperor Shah Jahan’s temple dedicated to his late third wife who passed giving birth to their 14th child. What a masterpiece.

Taj Mahal Taj Mahal with Us

Taj Mahal - Dirty Diaper... Really?The Taj Mahal is one of those things that everyone learns about in grade school just like the beginning to the Gettysburg Address or Man landing on the Moon. It did not disappoint. In the early morning light, the marble radiated as we found ourselves sitting in awe. After canvassing the monument to love from all four sides and marveling at the symmetrical minarets, we dawned white slips for our slaps and proceeded inside. But not before I nearly stepped in a strategically placed dirty diaper on the steps leading to the entrance. The elegantly simple interior is focused on the central tomb and the walls are dotted with intricate calligraphy. Upon close inspection of the large marble bricks, one must be impressed with the craftsmanship performed so long ago. The Indian government recognizes the need to preserve the icon after having gone to great lengths to erect scaffold to confuse the German Luftwaffe and Japanese Air Force. Aerial bombings are less a worry today when compared to the air pollution that is slowly turning the Taj Mahal a mild yellow color. Here is to hoping that future generations may some day view its beauty.

Red Fort - Taj in Distance Red Fort

With time to kill before our evening train to New Delhi, we hired a rickshaw to the Red Fort that was built in the 16th Century. The immense size of the fort was incalculable as Ash and I explored its crumbing nooks and crannies for two hours. Maybe our minds had enough info crammed into them for one day at the Taj because we spent more time watching the resident monkeys than reading factoids. They were everywhere. Balancing on railings, scaling walls, or gallivanting around green spaces. One furry guy captured our hearts as we intently watched him play with a discarded piece of chewing gum. Cute and cuddly one minute, vicious the next. As Ash was luring a young monkey closer to her camera, his mother didn’t care too much for the human interaction. She jumped on her back with a fierce shriek and Ashley began a squirming waltz. As I moved quickly to release the angry monkey from the clearly terrified blond girl, another monkey took a swipe at my leg, scratching it. The monkeys had fired a warning shot across our bow and we fled to the dusty streets of Agra with the troop of monkeys giving a light chase all the while hissing.

Monkey with Bubble Gum Mama Monkey

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. If you are making the journey all the way to Agra, make it count. Spend the night near a gate to the Taj Mahal (we paid $6 including a hot water shower) to ensure you are one of the first to see its majesty at dawn. You will have the place to yourself and watch the hordes of tour buses arrive as you exit.
  2. Be prepared to bargain hard for nearly everything from rickshaw rides to whips. For example,we bought an authentic whip outside the Red Fort for $1 after the tout started at $10.

3…2…1… Action: Slumdog Millionaire Slum, Bollywood Beach & An Indian Railway Experience

Slumdog Millionaire depicted the Dharavi Slum accurately. The video rolled while Ash and I were on the verge of tears, appalled by the living the conditions and bubbling waters of the moat surrounding the slum:

Ash commentates while at Mumbai’s Juhu Beach where the Bollywood stars live:

Bollywood stars love a good beach carnival:

Watch as our Mumbai to Agra (Taj Mahal) train pulls into the Bandra Train Station with hundreds of men in line:

Take a peak inside the cramped restroom and sleeper car of one of India’s long distance trains:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Flying from city to city is certainly doable at reasonable prices for the most part in India. However, part of understanding the Subcontinent is riding with the locals. The 2nd Class Sleeper (AC2) cars are comfortable enough. Just mentally prepare for an odd ride with numerous stops, roaming touts, and noisy nights.
2) Everything you need to know about riding Indian Railways can be found on The Man in Seat Sixty-One website: http://www.seat61.com/India.htm.

3…2…1… Action: Mumbai’s Laundromat, Gawking Men, Filthy Yet Holy Water & Traffic

Taking your washer and dryer for granted? This video of the Dhobi Ghats (open air laundry) will make you very thankful:

Whose that lady? The Indian men can’t take their eyes off Ashley:

The filthy water of Banganga Tank is considered holy as the spring feeding it is thought to come from the River Ganges:

Snarled traffic with rickshaws, bicycles, mosquitoes, and multitudes of honking vehicle types:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) India is full of scam artists on the street. Be weary of buying tickets for shows, tours, or transportation from complete strangers. Though your hotel will make a commission on any sale, knowing that you will get what you paid for is worth the extra money.

Mumbai in 100 Observations

â—„ men transporting gas canisters on head ● cats chowing down on cardboard covered in sewage ● trash here, trash there, trash everywhere ● street markets buzzing with activity and flies ● Ambassador taxis ● carrying Imodium in pockets 24/7 ● after returning to America, Greg vows to learn the art of curry, it is that good ● one kilometer long street market with endless rows of fashion vendors selling every imaginable piece of clothing ● friendliest people we have encountered on our RTW adventure ● still repairing sites of November 2008 terrorist rampage – Taj Mahal Hotel, Leopold Cafe, Victoria Terminus, Trident Hotel, Oberoi Hotel ● Greg scolded for taking picture of car’s motor ● sidewalks with women laying on blankets while their filthy children play ● kids will be kids no matter the place or circumstances â–º

Woman Resting at Banganbi Tank Mumbai Children

◄ snarled traffic ● bags made from newspaper ● four grown men on one small scooter ● restricted areas for photography include docks and gas stations ● pungent smell of fish at Sassoon Docks ● women skillfully balancing multiple bowls of fish on their heads ● barbed wire fence from Naval base hanging onto sidewalk ● Nariman Point Business District with goats roaming free ● air surrounding Back Bay full of dust and smog ● pigeons, gross pigeons ● architecturally beautiful new hospital ● straight men holding hands ● vacant beach in Back Bay ● old British buildings in Fort area ● military troops strutting in the streets with rifles ● rich living on left, slum on right, separated by ten foot crumbling wall ● fruit stand delivering goods wrapped in newspaper ● red dirt of the Hanging Gardens ● trash cans nowhere to be found ►

Mumbai Bus Nariman Point Hanging Gardens with View of Urban Beach

◄ security guard requesting ten rupees to take pictures of Victoria Terminus, refused to pay ● belching in public is AOK ● lots of barefoot pedestrians cruising the city streets ● immense poverty is disarming ● Dhobi Ghats (open air laundry) are ordered chaos ● workers at the Dhobi Ghats bust their butts ● the whole city of Mumbai is under construction ● begging children reaching up and touching the food on your plate is irritating one moment and heart wrenching the next ● child touts are persistent and hard to resist ● “where are you from?” “America.” “very nice!” ►

Dhobi Ghat (Open Air Laundry) Dhobi Ghat (Open Air Laundry)- v4

◄ soot covering every building ● Bollywood commercials ● motorcycle transporting glass windshields ● trains spewing black smoke onto clean clothes drying in the sun ● welcoming breeze makes it seem we are inhaling clean air ● delicious and cheap street food ● curry and naan are staple foods going forward ● sunny blue skies with a constant haze ● restaurants in Colaba can be impossible to find ● prefer the previous name of Bombay over Mumbai ● Mumbai drivers are fearless ● local trains with people riding on top are fascinating to watch ►

Newer Ditched Cars Covered in Soot

â—„ slum’s moat reeked of fermenting raw sewage, nearly unbearable ● slum children are oblivious to their plight ● Slumdog Millionaire portrayal of life here seems accurate ● outhouses over the slum moat result in fecal matter and trash rising from the water ● slums = heartbreak ● blue oozing water of the slum moat bubbled and looked corrosive ● sheer level of poverty shocks you to the core â–º

Dharbi Slum Moat Urban Slum in Abandoned Boats

â—„ honking is to drivers as breathing is to humans ● Indian men rock the black mustache…they rock it hard! ● carpet salesmen are skilled at their trade and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer ● Bandra Train Station and its surroundings is mass hysteria ● brush your teeth with tap water at your own risk ● citizens are sweet and genuine ● Ashley’s celebrity status after 50+ photos with young Indian girls near Gateway to India ● public toilets for a fee ● squat toilets with “leakage” surrounding the hole ● seeing 1,500 people on the beach without one swimsuit visible makes you scratch your head ● dancing monkeys on a leash is cruel ● each bite of food or sip of drink makes you wonder when Delhi Belly will strike ● traditional female dress is delightful ● men urinating against truck in broad daylight ● packs of cats running wild, wanting to join them â–º

Juhu Beach - Dancing Monkey Ashley Is A Celebrity with Taj Mahal Hotel Squat Toilet

â—„ counted six dead dogs on side of street in under two minutes of walking ● men staring at Ashley’s chest ● dust filled air makes coughing unavoidable ● no regard to traffic signals ● man walking down middle of street with two cows outside $1,000 per night hotel ● cricket match with Indian men wearing all white ● touts on every corner ● men with digital cameras and mobile printers at tourist sites ● extravagant wedding with bride and groom riding in a horse drawn carriage ● genuinely happy and smiling locals ● homeless man sleeping in gutter midday ● urban slum near water with people inhabiting abandoned boats ● body odor ● white t-shirt is brown after eight hours ● necessary to check bottled water to ensure it wasn’t resealed ● naan is simply the best food to clean a plate of curry chicken and vegetables ● helpful strangers who can’t stop smiling â–º

Taj Mahal Hotel Cattle Crossing Beggar Boy Bandra Train Station

â—„ strange Indian bobble head motion to indicate ‘yes’ to a question ● three lanes of traffic, seven rows of cars, cement trucks, humans, auto rickshaws, bikes, dogs, mopeds, taxis, and motorcycles ● beggar boy coming up to taxi window with sad and dirty face ● our hotel room resembling a prison cell ● My Name is Khan controversy ● raucous men climbing over each other to board train to Agra ● if you visit India, Mumbai is a must â–º

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) India is a dirty place and after a long day hitting the pavement, a clean and comfortable room is precious. Spend the extra $$$ and stay at a guesthouse with plenty of positive reviews.

Trashed Beauty of Varkala

India is tough to encapsulate in one sentence. We learned this within our first three hours in the Subcontinent..

Ambassador TaxiMy $2.20 wrist watch began hemorrhaging a series of awful beeps. It was 2:30 AM already? Within a half hour we were aboard the first bus to Kuala Lumpur’s distant international airport for a dirt cheap Air Asia flight to Thiruvananthapuram, India. Still half asleep upon arriving in the world’s second most populous nation, we negotiated a ride with fellow backpacker Rob to the cliffside beach town of Varkala on India’s southern tip. The aging white Amabassador taxi dodged pedestrians, dog carcasses, and sacred cows. After one hour of ingesting India’s uniqueness, we disembarked at Varkala in the dual use parking lot / hospital helipad.

Cliff with Trash Cliffside Shops

Floored best describes our first impression. Eighty foot cliffs giving way to the glistening Arabian Sea. A wide beach beckoning with equally appealing restaurants high above. Blue skies coupled with an intoxicating charm along the clifftop footpath fronting quaint guesthouses, bending palms, and welcoming shops. Befuddled was our second impression. How on earth could a place this enchanting be littered with so much trash? The beach, upon closer inspection was strewn with waste. Bar operators, citizens, and shop keepers lazily toss aside rubbish on the cliff’s edge assuming that when it falls, it is no longer their worry. Ash became frustrated by the mess cluttering the otherwise breath taking canvass. I was pissed and wanted to find out how and why this happens. We came to find out, after several conversations and first hand observations, that Indians in general don’t subscribe to the idea of waste baskets.

Fresh Pineapple Why Not Pee On The Beach Gawkers

The day was heating up so we hit the beach where Ash wrote in her journal (an incredible account of our RTW trip) while I was reduced to an eight year old playing in the Indian Ocean surf. Then a friendly Indian woman came by offering squid and fresh pineapple, which of course we inhaled. Squid grilled over an open flame on the beach is tough to beat. While Ash continued to pen her travel accounts, I surveyed the sand and cliffs on a leisurely walk where I witnessed a man in his early 30s drop his drawers and urinate beside a boulder in full view of all beach goers. Zipped up, he meandered on his way as if my jaw hadn’t hit the sandy floor. As I hurried back to the beach blanket to tell my tale, a group of teenage school boys were openly gawking at Ash. Pride overwhelmed me, so I proceeded to document the moment with a photograph.

Varkala Beach View From Cliff Varkala Beach Cliffs

Shopping, She was a Good SalewomanAs the sun disappeared into the sea, we met up with Rob (backpacker extraordinaire) who led us into the shadows of Varkala for a $1.30 dinner. Distinguished guests at the meal included a swarming brood of blood thirsty mosquitoes. After burning more calories swatting the nagging mossies than consumed, a cliffside “illegal” bar drew our attention. Alcohol sales are prohibited in Varkala for Hindu reasons so beer was consumed in solid vessels with the glass bottle hidden near our feet. It felt good to be such renegades. The next morning was spent browsing the multitude of shops sitting high above the crashing tide. T-shirts, wooden elephants, colorful mirrors, and beach wraps were among the purchases. Ash and I gravitated to a young girl who negotiated like a seasoned trinket saleswoman. Her English was impressive as she explained how she goes to school only three months per year. In between urges that she attend school more often, we forked over a king’s ransom for authentic Indian goods.

Varkala is blessed with incredible natural beauty yet sullied by indifferent locals. Many of the peculiar nuances we noticed here became themes of our time in incredible India.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Even the most experienced fliers should allow extra time at unfamiliar airports. At the Thiruvananthapuram Airport, the outside curb to departure gate process took over one hour after a convoluted process. To even gain access to the airport terminal, we had to show our tickets, which we did not have due to our online booking. Once that was straightened out, we patiently waited in line for our boarding passes only to be told our bags had to be screened first. Two separate queues later, we were in yet another line to gain clearance to the waiting area for the flight.
2) When in a new place, being slow to criticize is simple courtesy. Each country, heck even different regions in the same country, have unique quirks. We do our best to embrace the good and understand the bad.

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