There were no train tickets available for Haridwar, one of the destinations on the three-day Das family vacation I hijacked. Is this shocking? No. So, new plan: Ritu’s husband, Arindam, will take Friday off work and drive us in his compact car. The wrinkle in this new, shiny plan is that the car only seats five people so Ritu will have to stay behind. NOOOOO! Ugh. This is not happy news. Another slight obstacle is that his trunk space is taken up by a CNG tank. Congrats to him for being green and using compressed natural gas, but there’s a small matter of luggage for five people. Ok, light packing, got it. Oh, and departure time is 5am. I learned pretty quickly during my stay in India not to ask too many questions because if the answers are known at the time (which is not always the case), chances are they’ll change anyway. So when our plans took a slight left turn, I wasn’t surprised, and just had to go with the flow. That phrase holds so much more meaning than it used to.
Thankfully Mr. Das huddled up with his wife and son in the back and graciously gave me the front seat. The drive to Haridwar and Rishikesh took about five hours. These are Hindu pilgrimage sites that Mrs. Das wanted to visit. I hadn’t heard of either, but was along for the ride. Turns out Haridwar is one of the seven holiest places for Hindus, and the Beatles composed a number of songs while staying at an ashram in Rishikesh. Thanks, Wikipedia! En route we passed a bunch of sugar cane fields, with huge piles of the remnants being carted away via truck or pulled by buffalo.
We walked around one of the ashrams on the river, which was pretty cool. It was peaceful and had a good vibe. Many benches around the tree-shaded premises were occupied by horizontal bodies, taking a rest or reading. Later that night we went down to the Ganges River. There were shopping stalls and eateries, and supposedly a grand event where they light candles along the river, but unfortunately we missed it. After walking around for awhile in the cold (I was freezing in my heavy sweater and scarf), we headed back to our guesthouse. It was clean, thank goodness, but because this part of the country is bloody hot nine months out of the year, there’s no heat. And the building is made of concrete, which again, is great for most of the year because it stays cool, but when it’s 50 degrees outside, it’s also 50 degrees inside. I was shivering.
The next day we took a gondola ride up the mountain to a few Hindu temples in Haridwar. The scenery was beautiful, but the temples were overly-commercialized. At every turn there was an opportunity to spend money, whether for entrance fees, donations/offerings at various points or one of the many stalls selling trinkets. The temples were also full of macaque monkeys which were extremely aggressive. Twice I saw one grab a bag of just-purchased snacks out of a visitor’s hand and then run away while other monkeys chased to get a piece of the treasured food. The signs reading “Beware of monkeys” were certainly not an exaggeration. It was an interesting experience, and I’m glad I saw these places, but when are we going to the Taj??
After the temple visits, we drove back to Delhi, arriving late in the evening. We had just enough time for dinner before starting our day at 5am again the next morning, but this time we were headed to Agra! That morning the fog sat thick and soupy on the road. You could barely see four car lengths ahead, so we had to drive really slowly. Once things cleared a bit, I started keeping tabs on the animals we saw that day: dogs, cows, chickens, buffalo, goats, horses, sheep, monkeys, camels and… even an elephant.
Five hours later we arrived in Agra and first stopped at Agra Fort, which is where Shah Jahan was placed under house arrest during his final years (after he completed the Taj Mahal). It was beautiful, and the room where he was held looked nothing like a jail with its marble walls and inlaid gems, but I had a one-track mind.
We finally arrived at the parking lot of the Taj and took a camel-pulled carriage to the entrance where we found a line longer than Wal-Mart on black Friday. A guide told us that if we paid for his services, we would bypass the line. Good enough for me! We took him up on his offer, and made our way past the hordes of people. Once again the foreigner tax surfaced. Entrance fee for Indian nationals: 20 rupees; foreign nationals: 750 rupees. If Shah Jahan nearly bankrupt the Moghul Empire to build the Taj, foreign visitors have definitely made up for it.
You pass through a gate upon entering, and through the archway the Taj emerges, perfectly framed. I’ve heard people say it’s a site that you’ve seen a million times in photos, but it doesn’t compare to seeing it in person. I have to agree. It did not disappoint, and I got a chill when it revealed itself. Perhaps that’s because I’d waited so long to see it, and I was finally standing there, head-on. But mostly it’s just a magnificent building with a green garden leading your eye straight towards it; nothing else to distract you- well, except thousands of other admirers. The light gleamed off the perfectly symmetrical structure as I stopped for a moment to breathe it in. I wanted to stand and let it envelope me, but we walked around the grounds and were gone within an hour. There was apparently one site left to see before starting the five hour drive back to Delhi. Arindam had to work the next day, so staying the night in Agra wasn’t an option. I’m really grateful I got to see the Taj, but I so wish I had more time there. The picture in my mind isn’t as deeply chiseled as I’d hoped. They do full moon tours at night, which would be amazing. Another visit may be in order at some point.
Arindam and I stayed in the car for the final stop- some Krishna temple. If I wasn’t gazing at the Taj, I was done sightseeing. We arrived back in Delhi late that night and headed back to Kolkata the following day. Once again we awoke to fog, and although our train wasn’t scheduled until 4:30pm, the weather must’ve pushed back all departures because we didn’t leave until 7:00pm. We hoped to make up those hours on the ride back, but instead we ADDED five hours. The planned arrival time was 10:30am, but we didn’t pull into Sealdah station until 7pm, a full 24 hours after we left. Further, the two Kiva representatives were arriving by plane at 5:30. Mr. Das and I were supposed to pick them up at the airport and take them to dinner. Instead, he sent some BJS employees to pick them up and drop them at the office for a quick hello before delivering them to their hotel. When we finally arrived, the entire office was still there and they were giving the Kiva folks a presentation. Not exactly the relaxed dinner that was intended, but all worked out in the end.
This now left me with only two days in the BJS office before leaving for Thailand. At 4:30pm on my last day, they organized a small party at the office. I walked into the meeting area where a slide was projected on-screen. The tears started immediately. I knew I would be sad to leave, but I was surprised by the gush of emotion. Tears continued as each employee stood up and said something about me and what they learned. First was Uttama, the Kiva Coordinator, who I spent the most time training. She too was crying, which didn’t encourage me to stop. They each took their turn, commenting on my adaptability to any situation, thanking me for helping improve their English and just expressing overall appreciation for being there. I actually helped these people, and they were better off than before I came. I would be missed- I believed that. I would miss them too. It was all incredibly overwhelming.
I don’t know what I expected when I embarked on this journey, but I can definitely say that it changed me. It was difficult and frustrating at times, but the end added up to so much more than the sum of each piece. I don’t think any other place would’ve given me as much as India did. It chewed me up (at times), and then spit out a stronger and more satisfied me. Yep, I’d give up my salary and apartment a thousand times over for that.
Thank you to Kiva for giving me this incredible opportunity, and opening my eyes to different ways of using my skills. Thank you to Ritu for being my Indian “mom”, even though she’s more than 10 years younger than me! I would’ve been a lot more haggard without her help, support and friendship… not to mention lighter in the wallet. I was able to hang onto more rupees due to her bargaining prowess and cab rate negotiation. If I stood too close and they saw she was with a Westerner, the price would go up, so I learned to keep my distance. Then there’s Mr. Das. Some of my fondest memories are conversations with him about life, culture, marriage, politics and religion over beer at the end of the work day. He surprised me with his openness, and we’re similar in ways I never would’ve thought. As we approached the end of my fellowship, he amused himself by saying, “You always remember your first!” referring to me as their first Kiva fellow. For me, they are likely my “only”, and forgetting them would be next to impossible… not that I’d ever try.
So one chapter closes and another one opens. I’m off to Thailand for a few weeks to meet up with a friend from LA, and then I need to plot my next travel moves. More is certainly to come. Next stamp: Bangkok.