India: Stepping into the Void

In the fall of 2016, I traveled to India, stopping in Dublin and London en route. The journey left an indelible impression. India, the land of enchanted dreams, a timeless place, where civilization dates back thousands of years. Home of the Rama Empire. For ten years, I contemplated India, having stopped once at the airport in Delhi. I heard countless stories from friends and family who tried to describe the magic of India. Experience is the only solution. Now, having traced those steps, I would assuredly agree, India is the most visceral of countries. It smells, sounds, tastes, and feels unlike anything I’ve encountered. It pulses with life, beating like a heart. Crippling poverty abounds, but a serene smile is never far away. A myriad of mysteries lay in wait around each corner.

Diwali, the colorful Festival of Light, celebrating the victory of good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance, was happening in Mumbai the week I arrived. Fireworks were visible on the ground, throughout the city. Getting a cab was tedious. My seatbelt didn’t work so I held it around me as we weaved in and out of traffic. I was a fish out of water that first night. Honking, shouting, yelling, fireworks, fires, cows, chickens, goats, dogs, cars, cabs, rickshaws, motorbikes, buses – life firing on all cylinders. Lanes and stoplights present a vague guide, certainly not a mandate. Horns are encouraged. India is dynamic, and I loved it. Finally, we arrived at the Intercontinental Mumbai. They upgraded me to a room with a view of the Arabian Sea, along Marine Drive, with fireworks exploding all along its stretch. I gazed out the window. “This is where I belong,” I thought. India, where it all began, and where it all ends. Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic medicine, spices – all gush forth from the same source. I ate from the platter of fruit and slept.

(Arabian Sea from Intercontinental Mumbai)

I awoke the next morning, in awe of my view of the sea. I made two cups of tea and worked a while. I was overwhelmed, struggling to leave the hotel. Just after noon, I departed, walking south and then east. Traffic was heavy – of course it was – this is India, and this is Mumbai, a city of 20 million. I noticed a guy sleeping on the sidewalk and another begging, but most people seemed clothed, housed, and fed. I retreated to Marine Drive, walking south until stopping at Pizza by the Bay, where I glimpsed a healthy number of customers, a sign, perhaps, that I could stomach the food. I ordered the Bombay Masala pizza, a cheese pizza with Indian spices – perhaps turmeric, coriander, and cumin, but definitely chilies – baked into the cheese. The pizza had my nose running and tastebuds delighted. A small fee from the bill went to Garhwal English Medium School, and I was doubly satisfied.

Afterward, I returned to the hotel, made a French Press coffee, and crossed the street to the promenade along Marine Drive. I walked north, snapping photos of my hotel, the coastline, the people, and Arabian Sea. A group of teenagers stopped me for a selfie. I turned around and walked south, past the hotel, to the end of the promenade. I ran out of water and returned to the hotel, first getting photos of the sun setting over the sea.

Marine Drive - Mumbai
(Marine Drive promenade – Mumbai)

(Sunset on the Arabian Sea – Mumbai)

I left the hotel about 1:30 pm the next day. The taxi driver took me past Bandra, a sizable slum. He stopped near his home (a small room, he said), but we continued on after his son didn’t answer the phone. We jumped on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, an elevated bridge over Mahim Bay. The driver pointed toward Dharavi, the world’s third largest slum, with close to 1 million residents, but we couldn’t see it through the haze.

On my IndiGo flight to Jaipur, the subtle smell of incense and a delicate vapor descended from the cabin’s ceiling. This was a novelty, and it helped me relax. Arriving in Jaipur, I flagged a taxi to the ITC Rajputana. The lobby was tasteful, and the employees, in traditional Rajasthani garb, welcomed in colorful style. The décor of my room was dated, but I enjoyed the Rajasthani bath products and tea bags.

The next morning, I awoke early and washed clothes in the sink. I drank a coffee and two teas, and flagged a taxi to Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, a pink sandstone structure where royal ladies used to watch the city go by. The taxi ride to get there entered the walled, Pink City, and the chaos of Jaipur ensued. The honking was endless, and mind-numbing. At Hawa Mahal, I found the entrance, sat down to gather my composure, and bought an entry ticket. I walked inside, finding it subdued, compared to the city outside. I took photos, slowly climbing stairs. Eventually, I reached the top, snapping photos overlooking the city. A troupe of monkeys stood guard on the roof of a nearby building.

Hawa Mahal
(Hawa Mahal – exterior)

Hawa Mahal3
(Hawa Mahal – interior)

Hawa Mahal overlook
(Jaipur from Hawa Mahal)

After descending, I followed signs pointing toward Jantar Mantar, an observatory from the 18th Century. On the way, I passed countless street vendors hawking fruits, vegetables, grains, and treats. I followed a group of well-dressed Indians, and some Westerners to the ticket booth. Inside, I toured the grounds, stopping to read about the varied instruments used to measure the stars. I saw more Western tourists than at Hawa Mahal, along with a large Japanese group.

Jantar Mantar
(Jantar Mantar – Jaipur)

Upon exiting, I walked back toward Hawa Mahal, searching for a taxi. A rickshaw driver pestered me, but I declined. I kept walking, passing beggars, including a mother with three small children. Finally, I saw an Australian couple exiting a tuk-tuk, and I tried my luck. The driver and I agreed on a price, but eventually, he stopped and passed me off to another tuk-tuk driver. I filmed along the way. After reaching the hotel, I ordered room service. The meal was delectable, consisting of gram flour dumplings cooked in a yogurt-enriched yellow gravy, accompanied by ker sangri (a bean and berry dish), dal panchmel (lentils), and mewa pulao (sweetened rice with nuts and dried fruit), as well as rice and naan.

(Jaipur street life from tuk-tuk)

The following morning, I drank a coffee and walked to the lobby to arrange a taxi to Amer Fort. The fort, built in 1592, is 11 kilometers outside Jaipur. Constructed as a residence for the Rajput Maharajas and their families, the fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some visitors take elephants to the top of the hill, but I let my driver deliver me. Along the way, we saw camels, goats, cows, and a pig wallowing in the mud. When we reached the fort, my driver said he would meet me in two hours. The entrance was packed with touts and tour guides. Instead, I strolled inside, circling each level before following narrow stairways to the top. I stopped at each vista for photos. The fort was busy with schoolkids, and Western and Indian tourists. Retracing my steps to the main level, I ordered a Fanta and paced to the spot where my driver said we should meet. He noticed me, and off we set.

Amber Fort
(Amer Fort – Jaipur)

Amber Fort detail
(Amer Fort – Jaipur)

Amer Fort
(Amer Fort – Jaipur)

As we entered Jaipur, the driver stopped at a hand-block printing textile shop. My suspicion proved correct. In India, taxi and rickshaw drivers get paid a commission to bring customers to stores and hotels. Travelers beware. Regardless, the textile shop was intriguing. The owner offered to show me the process. He pointed to where they print the rugs, where they assemble them, as well as where they wash them. Inside, we looked at the finished products. They were exquisite, but I assured him I had no use for a rug. He probed me about the 2016 US Election, which was imminent, and displayed more rugs. He asked if I was interested in clothes. “No,” I said. “I need to get back to my hotel.” In the taxi, we weaved through traffic, passing by Jal Mahal, the water palace in the middle of Man Sagar Lake.

Hotel Yog Vashishth
(Himalayan foothills from Hotel Yog Vashishth – Rishikesh)

I flew with IndiGo again, this time from Jaipur to Delhi to Dehra Dun, and then I taxied to Rishikesh, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. My first morning in Rishikesh, I stepped onto the balcony with a coffee, encountering a remarkable view of the Himalayan foothills. I asked the front desk if I could walk to Laxman Jhulla Bridge, a pedestrian (mostly) bridge crossing the Ganges. I say “mostly” because there were a few motorbikes weaving in and out of foot traffic, as well as cows and monkeys. Before reaching it though, I crossed another footbridge, Ram Jhulla, over the Ganges. I retreated to the east side of the river, walking north into Laxman Jhulla Marketplace, until reaching Laxman Jhulla Bridge. On the bridge, a monkey stole a treat from a guy walking in front of me. I held my phone close. I crossed over and saw the German Bakery and Restaurant I had read about. I ordered a croissant and a coffee, and sat overlooking the river and bridge.

(Laxman Jhulla Bridge over the Ganga – Rishikesh)

After crossing the river, I walked north to examine my surroundings, then south again. I strolled down to a beach. Sadhus were loitering, some asking for money, others meditating. I sat by the water drinking a Coca-Cola. I returned to the hotel for bug spray, then moseyed back to the River Ganga. I sat on a cement ghat by the water’s edge for an hour. I walked north again to photograph the sun setting over the Ganges. That evening, I ordered falafels, pita, hummus, salad, chips (French fries), and a mango lassi.

(Sunset on the Ganga – Rishikesh)

I walked to the river the next day, stopping at a ghat to watch life pass by. A sadhu made eye contact and started a conversation. He ordered two hot teas, but I demurred, wary of contaminated water. We discussed enlightenment and meditation. He’d been a sadhu for 22 years, since the age of 11, when he ran away from Lucknow. He guided me to his abode, pointing south toward the ashram where the Beatles studied. We stopped at his hut, made of tree branches and tarps. Two dogs roamed. They seemed to be his companions.

Inside the hut, two mats were spread out. He said another baba-ji shares the space with him. He told me about his guru (gu = dark; ru = light). Thus, a guru brings us from darkness into light. He showed me his shrine to Hanuman, the monkey god, who espouses playfulness, and lives in the nearby hills, so baba-ji said. We discussed abstaining from alcohol and meat. That evening, I ordered the North Indian thali, consisting of dal fry (lentils), matar paneer (cheese cubes and peas in a tomato gravy), a veggie curd, rice, chapati (unleavened flatbread), a pickle, and papad (a thin, crispy bread). It included a yogurt dip.

(Mother Ganga – Rishikesh)

I slept late, went downstairs, and tried to buy a coke. The waiter pointed at a sign saying they would no longer accept 500 or 1000-rupee notes. I heard President Modi enacted this measure, but it took effect overnight, and caught most of the country off-guard. An American woman said the bank would open the following day. Another bit of news rocked the world that morning – the US elected Donald Trump. All the polls had his opponent, Hillary Clinton, winning the election.

Locking Horns
(Locking horns on the Ganga – Rishikesh)

That afternoon, I walked to the beach. For two hours, I sat on a rock that acted as a natural recliner. Two bulls locked horns on the beach, nearly running me over. Most of the beachgoers were Westerners, and a few Israelis. I grabbed a coke and a two-liter bottle of water at the hotel, and returned to the river. I sat on a ghat, listening to a peaceful Indian tune played on repeat at one of the nearby shops. A cow ambled down the steps of the ghat and sat next to a young woman. It rested its head in the woman’s lap. A sadhu descended the steps and started yelling at the woman. She argued back, but eventually departed. As did the cow. The sadhu dipped himself into the Holy River Ganga, performing ablutions.

Ganga ghat
(Ganga ghat – Rishikesh)

Rishikesh Ganga
(Ganga riverbank – Rishikesh)

I loved Rishikesh because of the scenery, the river, the sadhus, and the fact I could walk anywhere. The pace of life moved a little slower. My taxi driver was waiting for me at 11 the next morning. As we passed through dense forest the first 20 minutes, two flamboyant peacocks darted across the road. Monkeys paced the roadside. After passing over the River Ganga, we drove into Rishikesh Marketplace, getting caught in a couple minor traffic jams. On the highway to the airport, more monkeys stood aside the road, watching traffic go by. Cars, trucks, and buses swerved to narrowly avoid each cow.

After a stop in Delhi, I flew southeast to Chennai, in Tamil Nadu. One morning there, I walked to Little Mount Church. My route took me along quaint lanes with chickens roaming, in this city of 5 million. The church was built in honor of St. Thomas, whom, it is said, came to India in the 1st Century, residing in a nearby cave. A woman showed me the footprint of St. Thomas in a rock, now enshrined. She pointed at a well where he drank from. The grounds contained statutes of Jesus and his companions, including Mother Mary. Nearby, three chickens danced in the dirt. Two couples sat discussing life’s intricacies. Afterward, I walked south and east, past a small slum, until reaching Anna University. I toured the campus, watching college kids tend to life, talking in groups or on cell phones, entering and leaving buildings for class.

St. Thomas footprint
(Little Mount Church – Chennai)

(Anna University – Chennai)

From Chennai, I flew to Kochi, in southwest India. After breakfast my first morning, I caught a taxi to Fort Cochin, a half-hour trip. It was a beautiful drive, crossing two wide channels, until reaching the peninsula. The driver dropped me off at Mantancherry Palace Museum, which offers a fascinating history of the area. The region was ruled by Portuguese, Dutch, and British, before finally gaining independence with the rest of India in 1947. Hindu murals from the 16th Century onward adorn the walls.

(Spice Market – Kochi)

Next, I walked through the Spice Market, a neighborhood that tickles the senses. Indian spices have long been coveted around the world, and Kerala, the state where Kochi is located, has historically been at the center of that trade. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, chilies, and black pepper were among the offerings. I snapped photos and then arrived at the Jewish Synagogue, in Jew Town. The first Jews showed up in India before Christ, and more arrived in the 16th Century from Spain and Portugal. Many left for Israel in the 20th Century. Alas, the museum was closed, and so I walked to the Jain Temple, using Google Maps, offline, to reach it. I grabbed a tuk-tuk to the Chinese fishing nets, at the northern end of the peninsula. Later, I walked to Kashi Art Café, a funky spot full of art, with an inventive menu.

Chinese fishing nets
(Chinese fishing nets – Fort Cochin)

Kochi Fruit Stall2
(Fruit stall – Kochi)

The end of my extraordinary experience in India inched closer. Still on my agenda – Goa, Pune, and a final night in Mumbai. After breakfast, I taxied to the Spice Market. The driver got lost, and crossed the wrong bridge, but I had the offline map of Kochi. After parting ways, I walked through the Spice Market, until reaching the synagogue. I had ten minutes before they closed so I quickly passed through. Afterward, I browsed in the Spice Market again. I walked north, along the water, past spice shops, machine shops, and many empty, decrepit shops. Continuing north, well-heeled hotels, shops, eateries, and ayurvedic spas pop up. Walking west, I reached St. Francis Church, and then Santa Cruz Cathedral. I spent two hours gazing at the fishing nets in action, passing by the Jain Temple, and circling back to Mantancherry Palace Museum, where I looked for a taxi.

St. Francis Church
(St. Francis Church – Kochi)

From spice country, I flew 500 miles north, to Goa, the land of idyllic beaches. One day there, I walked to Cavelossim Beach, sat down, smoked a cigarette, and went for a swim. It was thrilling, bobbing in the Arabian Sea. I dried off and swam again, repeating the process. I grabbed a Sprite and water in the room, then returned to the beach. I swam and sat, snapping photos of the scene. I walked to Upper Deck, an on-site restaurant, for dinner. I ordered a lentil and spinach dish, along with rice and cheese naan. The waiter brought a plate of veggies to accompany it. The lentil dish was extremely spicy so I cooled my mouth with tomatoes, then cucumbers, onions, carrots, and finally, an innocuous looking bean. But the bean was an imposter. I ate half of it in one bite. My breath left me. I gasped for air. I drank water. Nothing cooled my mouth. It took time, but ultimately, I continued eating. The waiter brought roti (flatbread) with black pepper baked into it. I questioned him as to why he didn’t warn me about the hot pepper. He laughed, and said, “in India, a chili pepper is always served alongside fresh veggies.”

Setting Sun Goa copy
(Cavelossim Beach sunset – Goa)

I caught a SpiceJet flight from Goa to Pune, in Maharashtra. For breakfast on my last day, I dined on buttered pitas with hummus, smoked salmon, and two fig pastries. At 11 am, the concierge called to say my taxi had arrived. It took us 30 minutes to get out of Pune and onto the expressway. We stopped to use the toilet, and then drove through the Western Ghats, a mountain range. The driver asked if I wanted to stop for coffee or chai, but I declined. It took three hours to reach Mumbai, where I would spend my final night in India, at the St. Regis. Check-in took place on the 9th floor, and the agent upgraded me to a room with a view. My personal butler steered me to the room, asking me about travel writing and Jerusalem. She left me at the room, and I gasped at the view.

(Sunset at the St. Regis – Mumbai)

Looking back, Rishikesh, Goa, and Kochi were my favorite stops – and the smallest locales I visited. Next time, I’ll venture further north, deeper into the Himalayas, and also south, to Goa and Kochi again. I return to places that touch me, that pull at the strings of my heart. Those are the places that feel like home. And so, India, that fabled land, has woven its way into my psyche, into every fiber of my being. I shall never forget, or fully digest, what India means to me. May it continue to reveal its infinite treasures to the world, with each step, into the void.

Author: mat(the)writer

Travel is Life...

2 thoughts

  1. You write so well, Matthew !! Fascinating story .. love ❤️ Aunt Paula

    Sent from my iPhone


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