I only had ten days in India, a mere drop in an ocean when it comes to conquering the many to-do’s of this country. The adventurer in me was on full-blast though; I saw monuments, temples, and markets, zipped around in tuk-tuks, braved the suffocating metro, sampled street food, bargained in local shops, and held hands with locals when they wanted to share a photo. But there are five experiences from my PARALLAXploration that will stick with me like gum sticks to your boots (and, I hope, long, long after that).
1. No matter how far you go, America is not too far behind
My first spot in Delhi was Hauz Khas Village (HKV), which is the eclectic, artsy (hipster!) part of Delhi. Locals filled the streets and countless swollen-bellied dogs wandered aimlessly in the heat. I began to feel like I was in the movie The Labyrinth, navigating the narrow maze-like alleys with almost every sight, sound, and smell being unfamiliar.
Just as I was starting to question whether traveling to India solo was more than I could handle, I saw an oddly familiar sign written in English promoting “2-4-1 beers and live music,” drawing thirsty individuals in to drink Budweiser while listening to a local band play Bob Dylan covers. This brought me to a revelation I’ve often had while travelling abroad: no matter where I travel, somehow, in some way, there always seems to be an American influence. I wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing, so I opted to give it some consideration over a few 2-4-1 beers.
2. My bad days are in fact not that bad
Before leaving the States, I partnered with Headbands of Hope, who donated dozens of headbands for me to distribute to Indian children who were fighting cancer. Once in Delhi, I spent the day with CanKids, an organization that facilitates treatment for underprivileged children with cancer. I visited the local hospital, gave the headbands to children currently undergoing treatment, learned their stories, and played with the little ones who were too young to share their stories. For several of the children, the headband was the first gift they had ever received, and some were only a half hour out of treatment, yet still happy and willing to share smiles with me. Such a simple gesture brought so much joy to them during a what was, for each of them, an incredibly difficult time. These children endure so much: cancer treatment, harsh living conditions, (in some case) missing parents – yet they still found happiness. My experience was beyond humbling and left me a fresh realization: even my worst day is not, in fact, that bad.
3. My new found love of symmetry and stories
I planned a trip to Agra to see one of the world’s wonders, the Taj Mahal. Unfortunately, general confusion of navigating through Delhi caused me to miss the only available train to Agra on the day I planned to go. Luckily, in the thick of the main Delhi railway station, I somehow made friends with a local whose son was willing to drive me there and back. Bingo! Twenty minutes later I was on my way to Agra with a canteen of chai and my new, local friend, Anil.
When we arrived at the Taj Mahal, I was completely awestruck by the beauty of the place. The white marble was offset by rare inlaid stones and the black onyx designs weaved around the building in perfect symmetry. Anil joined me as we wandered through the Taj Mahal with wide, happy eyes. He was proud of the Taj, and shared countless stories of the blood, sweat and tears it took to build. As we walked through the area, I felt his stories come to life. There is no doubt that the Taj Mahal is a feat of human strength and a breathtaking example of what man can build. What excites me even more, though, are the stories that can be told about the things or ideas that mean so much to us and make us proud, and the way we tell these stories with a pride in our voice that makes the story carry on. The Taj Mahal is a story worth telling, and I’m so happy to have met Anil, hear his story, and now I’ll make sure to carry it on.
4. The greatest perspective
My next stop (after 13 hours on an overnight train) was Varanasi – one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, the spiritual capital of India, and the holiest of the seven sacred cities in the country. The city is dry and dusty, adorned with vibrant Hindu temples along brown dirt roads. The city is very much alive and thriving, but (unlike Delhi) it hustles and bustles in a very antiquated kind of way – almost as if the noises of the city were echoes from the past. Indians believe that dying inside of the city will bring salvation, so millions make the pilgrimage to Varanasi each year.
Varanasi is situated on the Ganges River. The river serves as a life-line for the city, constantly flowing at the edges of town. People bathe in the river to rinse free of their sins, and cremations are still held on the Ganges 24 hours a day. My first day there, I headed for the river, walked the ghats (different sections of the river – each with a specific purpose), and sat down at the main cremation site with a few Indian families who were there to cremate loved ones. After watching four cremations, the simple, sacred ceremony left my mind in a whirlwind, and me, speechless.
Varanasi is not only a city for Hindus, but major teachings of Buddhism were born there, and it’s a major influence on the muslim religion, too. On the last day I was there, 15,000 Muslims flooded the city for a holiday, splashing their traditional white robes across the colorful Hindu temples that line the streets. One of the most beautiful things in the world to me is watching different values and perspectives live together, breathe together, and become better together, despite their differences. Varanasi was one big perspective shift in feeling, and in thought. A truly beautiful city — from the strange life and death of the Ganges to the peaceful coexistence that allows the city to flourish.
5. People are predominantly good
After exploring Varanasi, I had to get back to Delhi for my flight home. However, the night before my plane left, I found myself stuck at a Varanasi train station in the middle of the night, by myself in a part of the city where a female traveler probably should not have been alone. My train was majorly delayed, leaving me alone and open to lots of harassment from people who (to put it nicely) weren’t so great.
After a few hours of harassment, I hit my breaking point. I was tired, overwhelmed, and nervous. Just as my eyes welled up with tears, two Indian men intercepted the next uncomfortable situation headed my way. They exchanged some heated Hindi words, then turned to me and asked if I was ok in English. The stubborn, independent spirit in me surfaced and for a moment and I tried to tell them that I was fine. But (fortunately for me), I do not have a poker face. They promised to stay with me until my train arrived to ensure I was safe. Vivek and Atul, my new found friends, sat with me for the next six hours. I ate dinner with them and their families, gave mini English lessons, discussed cultural differences, favorite movies, greatest fears, and shared many, many late night laughs. When my train finally arrived at 4am, one hour after they both needed to be at work, I was sad to leave them. Kind, genuine people are out there, and I found two of the very best that late night at the train station – a perfect reminder that all over the world, people are predominantly good.