Delhi – 2nd time around

I returned to Delhi for a second time, following a brief return to the UK to attend a family funeral. It was probably a good thing I had to break my ‘travels’ as it would have been easy to stay in Rishikesh where it felt familiar and easy. I’d gotten to used to it so leaving and starting my journey around Rajasthan where I would have to make daily decisions, planning, booking, on the move the whole time and the whole gamma of emotions and fears that can become a part of traveling somewhere so different, might have felt too big a task. Easier to stay put – especially somewhere like Rishikesh!  And then before the week back with my family was up I was suddenly a bit fearful of returning to India. I’d gotten too comfortable at my brother’s!

However coming back to Delhi and staying in a different area, right by a metro station as well as having spent 2 months in India by now, it was actually good to be back and didn’t feel quite so astonishing. Although this time I did pay way over for the taxi to the hostel (having said that, we travelled further and got caught in a stinker of deadlock traffic). I tried arguing and being assertive and even the hostel security guy came over to see what was going on but in the end I just paid up. I was knackered and just wanted to get my new bed already! Am sure they sense that…

Anyway the hostel, GoStops, was excellent. They have a shared kitchen (perfect for ‘fussy’ eaters like me), a lovely rooftop terrace, three doggies and two cats (who kept the cockroaches at bay I noticed) as well as a good schedule of activities and a good common room area to hang out, chill out and socialise. It was also a few hundred yards from what became my favourite restaurant (Bhaja Govindam) at the end of the block. I think I ate they every day and the food was delicious.

But being back in Delhi a second time around was much more enjoyable than the first. I felt more accustomed to the Indian ways and didn’t notice the intense stares quite as much. I was more relaxed and open to getting out there and experiencing things and found myself having little chats with randoms along the way. One of the funniest was sitting next to an older man on the metro for some time, each of us reading our little books on faith and spiritualism before both putting them away and him suddenly asking me which country I’m from. Turns out he has never been to England but had visitors from England come to stay with him. They were from Bristol, my hometown – which he wasn’t aware of. How coincidental! He told me their names but I didn’t know them 😀 But what a small world. I also enjoyed the kinship I made with a woman and her little children. I’d moved out of my seat to another opposite so her daughter could sit next to her and she seemed so appreciative of it. We all waved to each other many times as they left the train. So cute. Generally I was finding people to be intrigued and friendly, helpful a lot of the time. Was really nice. A bit weirded out by a boy of about 12 or so who said ‘hi baby’ to me as we passed each other but you know, he’s just trying out his English I’m sure!

Being right next to a metro station was a dream though! I got myself a 3-day travel card for Rs500 (appx £6) and took myself off to shop for a new camera and go on a temple tour. I chose a few select places that I was drawn to investigate and had a brilliant day of it:

ISKCON Temple
A bright, energising Vaishnav (one of the major traditions within Hinduism) temple set in a park near the Lotus Temple. Anyone can visit, it’s free and offers a schedule of darsan, puja, aarti etc. I had a chat with a guy on the way into the main temple hall and ended up acquiring two books in return for a donation. Although my initial donation was apparently not enough 😀 There is also a restaurant onsite which is renowned for good food but alas it was closed at the time I was there, so snacks it was instead which I ate in the park on the way to the Lotus Temple.

Lotus Temple
What an extremely beautiful building this is! I couldn’t wait to see this lotus-shaped temple in real life and was so happy that the skies were blue for it (although the camera picked up the haze/pollution a bit and I do think sunset or sunrise would be even prettier). I was visiting on a Sunday so it was very busy but the queues constantly moved so it didn’t take long to get in. Inside is minimally decorated (pure white marble and wood) with just two vases of flowers at the front. In keeping with the Bahai faith, there are no deities or depictions from any religions and is therefore open to all who are seeking peace and calm or wishing to do silent prayers. Just walking in and sitting down promoted wellbeing for me. Lots of emotions and questions popped up in my mind but it was still also grounding and reassuring. Time for reflection away from the busy streets.

Akshardam Temple
My word this place totally got to me! What a beautiful, stunning piece of architecture and the interior main temple hall – wow! I visited at around 3:30/4:00pm when the sun was lowering and all the colours of the Indian saris moving around were just brilliant against the white floors and dark red walls. Unfortunately you can only take in limited possessions (money, passport, water) so no cameras and no mobile phones – was quite happy about that last one but not having a camera in such a photogenic spot was tough going! So many photo opportunities missed… gahhhhh. But it meant I was more present, looked at things more intensely and thought about what I was looking at or reading more than I would if I was running around with the camera trying to get the best viewpoints and all that. But yes, this place stirred some emotions in me. And so did the people there. There was this beautiful unspoken unity going on. Quite precious, very uplifting and yet humbling.

Delhi_Akshardham_DSC_0078 edited_reduced

Delhi Yoga and Vegan Food Festival 
Of course I had to go to this – yoga AND vegan? Vegan AND yoga?! I was in paradise (again).

Was quite a long journey out to west Delhi but totally worth it. A lovely bunch of people, great food and a comprehensive programme of yoga sessions, meditation classes and talks on veganism, cooking etc. I timed my lunch wrong and stuffed myself with a gorgeous Thali (had been craving one for a while but had struggled to find a vegan one anywhere so far) and then went to a meditation class where I passed the yoga sessions and immediately knew I wanted to do some. I didn’t have a yoga mat (required) and hadn’t worn my yoga pants, but knew the cropped trousers and T-shirt I was in would be fine. So after letting the Thali digest I joined one of the last classes of the day, an Introduction to Power Yoga and wondered if I’d done the right thing when I realised I was surrounded by all the instructors I’d seen earlier doing impossibly advanced asanas on the lawn…. How difficult would this class be? It was titled ‘an intro to….’ so I just hoped it would be ok. And it was. In fact it was great to be doing some proper yoga again. I’d not been able to do much since arriving in Delhi as the visiting yoga teacher at the hostel was away/not enough sign up for classes and I was sharing a dorm with a guy who liked to doze around in bed all morning  and I didn’t feel comfortable practicing in front of him, or anyone really for that matter.

So yes, was a good day of vegan food, interesting conversations, yoga and meditation. I do like finding likeminded souls – especially in a different country! It was great that this kind of festival came to Delhi. There is a lot of uncovering going on at the moment regarding the brutal dairy industry that seems to be as prevalent here (where cows are sacred) as it is in places like Europe/UK. Which is very disappointing and saddening. So bringing awareness, like these festivals do, is desperately needed so changes can be made.

All in all my time in Delhi was really good.I met some brilliant people, both international travellers in the hostel and random locals who were happy to have little chats and make me feel very welcome.

Thank you Delhi Part Two!

And now begins my real travelling… 3 weeks out of Delhi towards Agra (stopping at Mathura briefly on the way) then Jaipur, Pushkar, Jodhpur…… can’t wait!

Next stop: Mathura

Rishikesh (Part One: Arriving & Hostel Life)

If you’ve read my Delhi (part one) post you will know how eager I was to leave the chaotic, noisy, polluted city behind me and escape to Rishikesh, a peaceful haven at the foot of the Himalayas that was to become ‘home’ for the next 5-6 weeks. Blisssssssss…..

To get there though would be my first experience of Indian trains, and I’d heard a lot of horror stories. Plus knowing what I’m like, I’m bound to make a hash of it. Even getting a seat proved a ‘learning experience’.  Due to booking my ticket online just a few days before travelling, the seat I thought I’d booked successfully was actually on the wait list. I knew the system, but the 2am jet lag and anxious mess I’d become from wanting to change my original ticket to Varanasi, meant I didn’t pay attention to the fact it was waitlisted and there were quite a few people ahead of me. And I still didn’t realise this until the night before! All I could do was sit tight until the final confirmed seats were published at 8am on the day of travel, whereby I learned my seat was not confirmed. What to do? What to do? I needed to leave Delhi and find the mountains! Today! The hostel offered me an overnight bus (no thanks!) and then took me to a local travel agency who tired to offer me a ticket for an un-resevered seat in a non-AC third class carriage for Rs700. I knew I was being swindled and could do better. Had heard plenty about travel agencies ripping off tourists as well as the nightmare of third class non-AC un-reserved seat tickets, which are packed with people sitting on one another and hanging out the door… not ideal for first time travel let alone with several heavy bags I’d like to keep with me at all times! Had also heard about the official booking office in the main train station where you can get last minute tickets using the Foreign Quota (at a little more cost, but even so…) so I rushed there with the time ticking away in the back of my mind and got myself a very lovely reserved seat in second class AC for just under Rs700! So glad I persevered!

Finding my train was also another issue. A porter offered to help me with my bags but I declined, convinced I could work this out myself. Except five minutes later, still standing on platform 1 wondering where on earth I needed to go for my train (the departures board was a bit iffy and hard to understand – plus it was saying the train was delayed…on and off). So I hunted down the same porter who proceeded to save my life. Taking my rather heavy pull-along case he navigated us up many steps to cross all the way over to platform 12 (!!!) and then walked what felt like two miles along the platform to reach my carriage – such a long train. He found my seat and then, with some huffing and seating, hoisted my case up on to his head to prepare himself to get it in the overhead storage space. So thankful he was there to do that because I sure as hell wouldn’t have managed it! I gave him a well earned Rs100 (he definitely deserved more) and then immediately squabbled with an Indian woman who wanted my seat for her husband so they could sit together. No biggie. I took a seat opposite and hoped no-one would come to claim it, and found myself next to a couple from Shanghai. I was to discover they were also disembarking at Haridwar and they kindly helped me lift my bag back down. Thank goodness. Was also grateful they were there to help work out when to get off the train (and also thanks to GoogleMaps, once again) as all the signs were in Hindi. The funny things about the train ride were: rows of eyes watching me above the seats that quickly looked away when I caught them, watching everyone tuck into their foil-wrapped meals and sucking on countless sweets, the constant call out of ‘chai, chai, chai’ from the vendors walking up and down the aisles.
Arriving in Haridwar in the evening meant I had to get a taxi to Rishikesh, about a 50 minute drive away, as buses had stopped running. I was slightly panicked as it was everything I’d read not to do: travel alone at night, even in taxis. Especially in taxis. But also the thought of riding for an hour in a tuktuk was not appealing either. And I’m glad I didn’t as the roads were still badly damaged most of the way due to the recent monsoons which made for a bumpy in the taxi. A tuktuk would have landed me in hospital I’m sure.

On arrival at the beautiful and well positioned Live Free hostel, surrounded by mountains and overlooking the town, I was greeted by a large group of people sat on the terrace, which, although I just wanted to have a shower and go to bed, was actually really nice and set the tone for my new adventure. This is when I discovered that I’d inadvertently booked myself into a mixed dorm (rather than all-female) and whilst I was a bit unsure about this at first, it proved to be a great ‘mistake’ as I’d landed myself into a group of new friends who were both welcoming and protective – plus they had a lot of knowledge about the area and recommendations of Things to See and Do.  Indeed these lovely folk became my new brothers and sisters for the next 6 days (and for life I hope) and really made my introduction to India the best I could have hoped for. Some of them were Indian and it was so interesting to hear about their culture and customs as well as learn some rather handy tips.


With these guys I hiked up to the nearby Neer Ghar Waterfall, a stunning river running down the mountainside with pools every so often where people go to swim and hang out.

We went to the evening Aarti at Triveni Ghat, one of the best places to see the Aarti, which is a fire/lamp ceremony to give thanks and appreciation to the Ganga Ma (Tip: this is the proper name for the Ganges. Will win you extra points if you show you know this when talking with any Indian friends). The ceremony was beautiful with lots of melodic chanting, building up to a crescendo which ultimately brought me to tears. After everything I had been learning about the culture, faith, humanity and spending time with some incredibly beautiful souls from all over the world I was just moved inside to another dimension I hadn’t expected. For me, this was the first taste of India stirring something inside of me. And it was wonderful.

I’d also arrived during Navrati, which is a 9-10 day festival of celebration, a great time to be in India! There are two myths associated with it but it is ultimately about celebrating victory over evil. There were nightly stage shows with dancing and singing competitions and it felt really special to be in the audience for this. I particularly liked the Bollywood style evening where I could practice a few moves as instructed by my more experienced peers! On the last day of the festival we returned to Triveni Ghat to watch the celebrations of one of the associated myths, where Lord Ram won the war with Ravana in Sri Lanka to bring back Sita to India. It is celebrated widely and involves fireworks and burning of three massive effigies. This also became my first witnessing of the lack of health and safety in India… Whilst trying to light the fire inside of one of the effigies, several firecrackers that produce ear-blasting bangs were inadvertently set off and several of the guys came running out holding their ears. The entire audience started pointed at them whilst laughing hysterically – hilarious!

 

As for Rishikesh itself. Well, I know ‘Love’ isn’t supposed to be part of this journey until I reach Bali, but in love with this special, incredible town, I fell deeply. It is as chaotic and noisy as Delhi, and crossing the bridge was taking a chance with your life. But there was a more relaxed approach, people were very friendly and welcoming, there was an underlying sense of community and kindness. What was also interesting, was learning that Rishikesh is attracting more Indian tourists than Westerners these days, even in the area I was staying in, Tapovan, which is famous for the backpacker community. Having started out as a quiet town with a scattering of ashrams, it started attracting Westerners seeking spirituality and/or a break from the stresses of modern life. To this day is a haven for mediation and yoga seekers (it is considered the yoga capital of the world) as well as art, music and dance. And I can see why. Today, it is believed there are over 300 yoga teacher training schools. The town almost doesn’t seem big enough for those alone! But I can easily believe it.

It’s probably easier to let the images of Rishikesh speak for themselves (more to follow in Part Two). All I can out into words is… orange monkeys ready to attack for food, white monkeys peaceful and timid, scooters (and cars, buses, trucks) beeping furiously, dogs, cows and bulls meandering the streets, sometimes pigs, Sadhus and babas glowing in orange robes, the turquoise Ganga Ma snaking through the town, mountains, waterfalls, organic and Ayurvedic shops, a wealth of cafes, beautiful sunsets, chilling out, hitchhiking a lift in an open truck, yummy samosas and masala chai, evening Aartis, temples, yoga, mediation, ashrams, the smell of incense (sometimes cow pats), working donkeys weighed down with bags of stones, a sense of wonder, peace, gratitude, community, kindness, love.

I ended up staying in Rishikesh for seven weeks. The first week in a hostel, then to an ashram to complete a 200hr (4 week) yoga teacher training course, then another two weeks where I also completed my Reiki Level 2 training. Will write about all this in separate posts along with a whole post dedicated to the majorly impressive vegan dining options! Its easy to get well fed in Rishikesh!

Next stop: Delhi (2nd try!)

Delhi! 

Delhi!

Wow. Delhi. It’s so it’s true what they say about you! Crazy, chaotic, hot, beautiful, mindblowing….

My 7hr something flight from Rome to Delhi was uneventful and pleasant and actually went by pretty quickly, which I think was helped by watching a film whilst eating my meal with a small glass of wine and then promptly falling asleep for several hours. I woke a couple of times thinking I had just dozed off yet the crink in my neck and announcement we were only an hour away from landing confirmed I had actually properly slept. So upon arrival at Delhi airport at 7:30am I was actually pretty refreshed and alert. Who needs business class eh?!

I flew with Air India and despite being a predominantly vegetarian airline these days still didn’t quite get the concept/were unable to provide a full vegan meal. I could smell delicious curry as soon as I boarded and felt instantly ravenous for my first dish. As being vegan means being ‘special’ my meal came out first. Yesssss! No waiting! But then I had many curious eyes all directed at me wondering why I got mine first. That was my first experience of the intense staring…. And so of course I couldn’t start to eat it, as no-one likes an audience as they tuck in to their food. So I waited for a few more people to get theirs (luckily the service was amazingly quick and efficient) but then faced major disappointment when I opened the main carton to find…. grilled/boiled veggies and plain rice. No luscious curry gravy. Gahhh. I checked my fellow passengers’ meals and yes, there it was, the gorgeous smelling thick curry I had been salivating over. I consoled myself that it probably contained milk, butter, ghee, paneer. But it would have been soooo easy to make the same thing without any of that dairy…! Ah well. My meal still filled me up, which was good as the rest of the items on the tray were not vegan, including the dessert. And it also meant, in my unique way of thinking, that I could therefore treat myself to a glass of wine. Which in turn helped me sleep. Win win.

Arriving in Delhi airport was my first introduction to The Way Things Work in India. I needed money and a SIM card and a taxi to my hotel. I’d heard about the scams (more in the Travel Tips page if interested/need to know, coming soon) and felt kinda confident I’d be prepared, but when actually there, with only the airport workers to ask, who seemed to wobble their heads a lot in answer to my questions not confirming yes or no, I was going to have to keep my wits about me and stay strong.

Luckily all three services (money, SIM card and taxi service) were all located together in little booths on the way out and this proved to be the most straight forward part of my airport-hotel run experience. First up: money. I’d heard that in Rishikesh, where I was going to be doing my yoga teacher training and where I would need to pay the balance upon arrival (and which was quite a lot of money) getting cash out can be quite tricky. Turns out getting cash is quite tricky in Delhi too, although at least not as bad as this time last year when the cash machines ran dry every day. So I thought I’d do it at the airport in one go and not have to worry about it any more. Unfortunately it wasn’t so straight forward. Swiping my debit card in the Thomas Cook desk revealed I had not transferred the money from my savings to my current account and I could not access my savings account either with a card (I don’t have one) or online (I had no SIM card/online access). So I paid over the odds fees to get out just enough for my stay in Delhi. Finding more cash before leaving Delhi would have to become a new task for the coming days…. Next up SIM card. Easy peasy. Just had to wait an hour or so to be connected (took another day or two to get the mobile data working) and this meant still no access to Google for assistance or maps to check the taxi driver was taking me the right way and all the other things we rely on our phones for.

Next up: taxi to hotel. I was offered 400 rupees in a non-AC ‘black and yellow’ cab or double that in an AC plush taxi. I opted for the former to cut down on unnecessary costs, took the voucher and went off to find said taxis. A long line of black and yellow taxis lined the road and as I worked my way to the front the drivers approached me forming a big crowd around me saying their taxi was the best and to go with them! It was quite comical and slightly unnerving! I couldn’t remember the protocol and got in an old battered tiny cab and handed over the voucher, something I should have probably done at the end of the journey, but ah well, I arrived safely.

The journey to the hotel was amazing. I had to keep pinching myself that I was here finally, in my beloved India! Somewhere I had felt an infinity to for so many years but had never been here. How can you want something or know something would be good for you when you’ve never actually experienced it or known it before? When you feel that way it is very special, and something you have to find a way to make happen in your lifetime. Something deep inside is calling you there, calling you to feel something new, deeper, raw, to learn something about yourself, other people, a new philosophy maybe. Whatever it is, when you have it, act on it.

Anyway I digress! The taxi ride presented me to what will be the ever presence beeping of horns. Man they love to beep them horns! And traffic/driving is crazy and chaotic and seems to be so dangerous with lanes marked for two becoming three sometimes four actual lanes of vehicles swerving in and out of each other, beep beep beeping… yet somehow works. These guys would make excellent rally drivers! And also along the way….. monkeys. Yes I did say MONKEYS! At the side of the road, right next to people, clambering along the fence…. and wild piggies, cows – of course but I wasn’t expecting them in the middle of a busy main road!  The driver skilfully got us around the wandering cows without any harm. Then there were people. So many people. So much poverty. I caught my first glimpse of a slum and the first sightings of people so poor they lived on the roadside with just the clothes on their backs, probably defecating and urinating right by where they sleep. So many people with nothing. How can this be?

And then we pull up to my hotel. I’d booked something a little plush, not too posh, but definitely higher end, thinking I would need it from my flight and to gently ease into Delhi life. And it is here we pulled up outside to the doormen and bellboy in our little battered non-AC taxi! I couldn’t stop giggling, handed the driver a healthy tip (was so glad to have made it there in one piece without being the victim of the many scams I’d heard about I figured it was money well spent) and proceeded to put all my luggage through a scanner before entering the smart, AC’d lobby to wait for my room to be ready. Whilst waiting the staff were very attentive bringing me coffee and tea, finding soya milk etc. Being a female solo traveller has its perks! The next two days at breakfast all the waiters knew I’d like soya milk with my coffee and went about making a very nice cappuccino for me, so nice!

But Delhi was about to be hit by another short (thankfully) monsoon rain. It was to last two days and was unbelievably humid in the day I arrived leading up to it. I took solace in my comfortable room with it’s massive bed and just rested, thinking about what I would do with my 4 days in Delhi and also pondering the journey I’d booked from there to Varanasi…. something I wasn’t quite sure was the right thing to be doing….

Those first two days were the hardest for me in India. I had the safety and security of the hotel yet didn’t want to be stuck in there, especially alone, knowing there was so much to explore outside. It was scary heading out into the thick of it, but necessary. I I was going to fall at the first hurdle I may as well get on the next flight home with my tail between my legs. So out I did venture…. Thank goodness my Googlemaps, saving my skin again! And also group walking tours. I joined a ‘free’ (ie make a donation at the end) walking tour of Old Delhi, in the pouring rain, and was so glad I did. There I met fellow travellers who sparked some adventure and inspiration in to me as well as pass on handy travel tips. It meant I also got to witness the intense stares from the local natives whilst feeling a little more safe having people around me who ‘knew’ me and were in the same boat. It also allow me to find my feet with the Metro (sort of), find some confidence to walk around the narrow lanes and busy roads as well as see a working elephant wandering down the main road whilst in my taxi taking me to the walk starting point.

 

After getting pretty wet and saying goodbye to the lovely people on the walk, I somehow made my way back to the hotel alone via my first go on the (very, very squishy) Metro and a 15 minute or so walk passing surreal extremes of poverty and riches, arriving at the plush hotel with the filthiest wet, muddy feet I think I have ever had (save for Glastonbury Festival 2012). Again, making an entrance to the nice hotel 😀

It soon became time to leave the sanctuary of the hotel and make my way to Zostel, a hostel near the main railway station and a few minute’s walk to the Main Bazaar Road (which I did wander down and made my first market purchases – two pairs of trousers for Rs 250, total bargain). If I thought I was in the thick of it at the hotel, then this location was in the centre of the storm! Bewildering as it was, in hindsight I can safely say it was probably a good move. It also meant that instead of hiding away in my room I shared a female dorm room with two others, who were to become my friends, and also hung around the lobby where I met a few others, including a lovely German guy who wanted to go see some sights on a tuktuk. Thankfully he invited me along as doing these kind of things for the first time is much easier when not doing them alone! And he was way more confident and experienced so I get to learn the ropes, so to speak, in a nice afternoon spent in the grounds of a beautiful serene temple and visiting the highly touristy India Gate. Unfortunately he had to leave that evening so we exchanged contact details and said our goodbyes. Luckily my two dorm-mates were perfectly balanced in the being sociable but not OTT scales and we got chatting.

The next day I was due to leave for Rishkesh, having changed my travel plans and cancelled my train to Varanasi. I’d decided it would be nice to arrive early in the place I would be staying for 4 weeks for the yoga teacher training course (YTTC) and get to know the place. Plus it looked gorgeous in the travel guides; a valley town surrounded by mountains and nature with the glorious turquoise Ganges running through the centre and filled with backpackers, yoga and meditation seekers. It seemed just the tonic I needed after feeling quickly wiped out by Delhi. I just needed to get there, but compared to the 14hr train ride to Varanasi I had originally booked, the 5hr train ride to Rishikesh would be easy! Although I could see there was some charm to Delhi, I wasn’t sorry to be saying goodbye to Delhi. Many fellow travellers felt the same way, it’s just so overwhelming and, as someone quite well put it, astonishing! Maybe some more time in India will help me get used to things. Let’s hope Rishikesh will be the just the place.