“From Connecticut? America? Yoh. So how did you end up here? In Nieu-Bethesda of all places?”
The guests of The Brewery and Two Goats Deli ask me this question on a daily basis. And since I’ve stopped giving weekly updates of where I’ve been staying since I left Hanoi, you may also be wondering how I got to this tiny town in the Eastern Cape. Here’s the first of a two part account of where I’ve been for the past two months to answer all of your questions.
Immediately following my last post in Vietnam, I flew from Hanoi to Bangkok where I took an overnight layover and went out to explore the city. I subsequently lost my debit card and had to have a visit to the police station but, as always, everything got sorted out and I made my connecting flight to New Delhi.
Upon arriving in New Delhi, I took a cab to Nikita’s house. I had never met Nikita before but a few days following our meeting she was to become a Singla after marrying my good friend Sharad (from our time in Durban and a key character of my recent New Years celebration). Although I was all geared up to explore the city in the morning, I spent the next day in the fetal position as my body fought back against Indian food. Like any adventurous eater, I had tried everything at both the family’s house and at the Mehndi ceremony on my first evening. The sickness was miserable but I was still without regrets since everything had been delicious and I was glad to be managing my illness in a house rather than atop a mountain or on a train (as some other friends did later). They say 80% of people will get sick during their first two weeks in India so I was glad to pay my dues early on.
After my friend Laura (also part of our Durban expat group) joined at Nikita’s house, we (along with Magic Manas) took a car to Chandigarh where the Singlas live and the wedding would be taking place; I focused for 3 hours on keeping my stomach as calm as possible. In addition to meeting all of Sharad’s friends and family from India and Singapore at the hotel, I was also reunited with more Durban friends: Nothando, Jenny, and Ruan. The Chandigarh festivities involved a pre-wedding party in the hotel, shopping for kurtas and saris, and a parade down the street to the wedding ceremony complete with fireworks and Sharad on a horse. I intend to be less ill for the next one, but all in all my first Indian wedding was amazing.
After Chandigarh, I went to Dharamsala with Jenny, Laura, and Ruan to spend the remainder of their time in India in the Tibetan refugee town. Some highlights of our time together were hiking up to Triund in the outer Himalayas, eating copious amounts of momos, getting to know more about Tibetan culture in the Norbulingka Institute, and pithy snippets of recorded wisdom from the 14th Dalai Lama in the Tibet Museum: “I may not be the best Dalai Lama, but I’m also probably not the worst, I’m only the current Dalai Lama”. We later found out that John Oliver was also there in a similar time frame to us. Check out his episode for more on Tibet, the future of Buddhism, and more words of wisdom from Tenzin Gyatso. After saying goodbye to my friends on their last day, I started out again on my own. I booked a night bus from Dharamsala back to New Delhi where I would plan the rest of the trip. I spent my last day in the town getting into some great conversations with the monks, helped one with the settings on their iPad, and went to a lecture about the overlaps between Western medicine and Zen Buddhism.
I took a bus ride back to New Delhi, where my enjoyment of India started to wane. There were extortion tactics from rickshaw drivers such as “parking fees’ – as if the originally negotiated price did not include the extra 50% for the rickshaw to stop for 3 seconds to allow me to exit. The pace of the city was overwhelming as I tried to meander my neighborhood for the day. And it was seeming that all conversations I got involved in were turning into an opportunity to get me to buy something. I decided I wanted to get out of Delhi and just starting making it through India without living in constant frustration. I worked with the hostel to check what the train availability would be to start moving away from the city; I would have to wait until at least the next day. So later, when I stopped at a local tourist office to grab a ‘free map’, I ended up slowly getting convinced that I should just book all of my train travel in their office to not get stuck anywhere again. Looking back, this was a terrible decision. I found out almost immediately after leaving Delhi that I could have booked last minute tickets using any IRCTC account. But once I had given money over to this company, Travel Expeditions, I tried to enjoy the trip and not let the frustration in my own mistakes mar my journey.
My continuing travel around India took me on the following route: Delhi-Varanasi-Agra-Jaipur-Pushkar-Jasailmer-Jodhpur-Udaipur-Mumbai-Goa-Mumbai. In Varanasi, I grew more in tune with Hinduism after dipping my toes into the Ganges and watching the sunrise and sunset ceremonies along the ghats. Close by was Sarnath, an important site of Buddhism, where the Gautama Buddha gave his first teaching on the Dharma. As you walk through Saranath you can also see several Buddhist temples built by Buddhist countries in their own national style (Japan, Thailand, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar). From Varanasi I went by train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I only stayed from the morning until afternoon with my bag checked in at the station. Also in Agra was the Agra Fort which is well worth a visit with an audio guide. Then to Jaipur where I was expecting another capital city to start dragging on my experience again but was happily surprised with the way things started picking up in my favor. I was able to swing a massive discount on the Hawa Mahal, City Palace, Jantar Mantar, and Albert Hall Museum with my (still expired) student ID. In Pushkar I was stunned by the beauty of the Holy Lake and spent all my days practicing yoga and drinking the best chai at Dinesh’s Beats n Feast where I was treated to beautiful ragas and delicious dal bhati churma. On my last morning there, I took a hike up to the Savitri Mata Temple before sunrise to watch the city wake up. In Jasailmer I visited the fort after lassis at a shop I found out that Anthony Bourdain (one of my heroes) had visited previously. On my second night in Jasailmer, I took a camel ride out into the desert and slept under the stars. Jodhpur is where ‘my friends’ from Travel Expeditions really started to test my patience; a last minute mistake on their part put me on a train to arrive at 8PM on March 2nd and leave at 5AM on the 3rd. My rickshaw ride to and from the hotel was lovely but I can’t say much more about the city from there. Thankfully I was able to make it to Udaipur with no delays for my birthday on the 3rd. I met up with Raj, a friend I had made previously on the busy train from Jaipur to Pushkar. After I had explored most of the city on my own (and got a shave from a street barber) he invited me to his home where we cooked up a great feast.
Without any trains to take me direct from Udaipur, I had a flight to Mumbai (where I only stopped for a quick visit into the city) and then an overnight train ride to Goa. Other than my flight leaving from Mumbai, my four nights in Goa was my last stop after zipping all around India. I finally got back to the coast in my bungalow on Palolem Beach where I had a moment to pause and reflect on my time in India. Over the previous weeks, when my friends and family had sent me the occasional text message that read some variation of “What’s up, dude? How are you? Where are you now? What’s India like? Miss you!” I replied with something along the lines of “Varanasi! Sunrise cruise along the Ganges… India is wild. I’ll share more later.” But had I been totally honest, I would have shared more of my frustration. I would have told about being swindled by ‘my friends’ in Delhi. I would have told them more about the smell. I would have told them more about how sick I had gotten from the food. But by the end of it all, sitting on the beach in Goa, I could only remember the best parts. I revisited all of my frustrations in my journal entries from the trip, but all entries seemed to be written by someone else. All that remained were memories of homemade dinners, increasingly delicious street foods, beautiful music, and smiling and wiggling heads. I decided to write my former-self a letter to warn me not to worry.
I rode back to Mumbai with a different outlook on the country than I had been traveling through it with. All of the triggers for my previous frustrations started to blur into the background as I walked through the city on my last day without a care in the world.
Continued in Part 2