I took the time to reflect on my overall sense of India --- which is again, filled with extreme highs and lows, to the stereotypical point of being near indescribable. However, I just realized that I failed to speak about my actual time there. I was able to spend those five days with a dear friend of mine, Elizabeth Davenport, whom I've known since I was eighteen. Her partner, Anne Benvenuti, who is equally prized, is sailing on the ship right now as faculty. She and I flew directly to Delhi, where we met up with Elizabeth and their friend Belle from Brasil.
The last time I was in India, I was 21 years old and alone for a good chunk of the time. Juxtaposed with that, and also my experiences on the rest of this current voyage, India was also the apogee in terms of dynamics. I didn't think about it until we were already in the midst of our journey, but a group of 4, strong willed and independent women inevitably means that a natural battle for alpha will take place. We all felt this struggle in the beginning, as we tried to figure ourselves out and I naturally defaulted as the youngest member of the clan. However, after a stress-induced deal with a shady cab driver was made immediately after exiting a train (a cm cardinal rule is to never negotiate inside of a train station; always exit first), the case was made for me to negotiate all transportation from there on out. Which was a perfect challenge for me, and also good because I then got to follow their lead for everything else.
Elizabeth has a good friend from the LA Times who is stationed in Delhi, so we had the luxury of staying in a rather affluent area (Defense Colony) and having help with logistics and transportation. In a shopping center nearby, we came across one of our soon-to-be fave stores, Fabindia where we purchased some ethnic wear for our temple and taj visits.
Our day at the Taj in Agra was more memorable than I imagined it would be. To be honest, all I remember about the first time I went there in 1998 is that a riot took place outside of the main gate. I was admittedly not very excited to be going back there yet again, but traveling with wise and wordly academics changed my perspective on that. Elizabeth made me understand the prodigiousness in a new way. It's grandiose and arguably rococo, but sui generis in its approach. Most large, obnoxious buildings are built by men, for men, as a sign of a power and a tribute to themselves. I never thought about this until Elizabeth mentioned it, but how wonderful to have such a behemoth of a building constructed in honor of a woman. And as a tribute to loving her in addition.
I kept joking to our shady cab driver that he was going to take us on a "magic carpet ride." He tried to push a tour on us, and in all reality probably ended up close to fired after I absolutely refused to let him take us to a single carpet or marble factory. I sat shotgun, and it was my duty to keep him contained and on track -- a duty I, for the most part loved, though he did take a liking to putting his hand on my leg. Which annoyed me. His eyes were large and bulged like a fly, and his head was disproportionately large for his scrawny body -- which made his head bobbing extra comedic. How and why do all Indians do that, btw? Is it an extra gene they carry? Are they taken into special meetings as children to learn it? Someone chime in if you have any thoughts.
We visited a moseleum in Agra that was overflowing with monkeys and deer. One of them scratched Annie on the face but we still managed to have a long, peaceful afternoon. In hindsight, there is no reason to spend more than a half day in Agra if you're on a tight schedule, but at least this place was worth riding out the afternoon. I had a wonderful time chatting with Belle, and gawking at the Indian women dressed in varying degrees of primary colors.
That was the night that we ended up in the Agra train station for 4 hours, and had a wild ride back to Delhi. We were so delirious that I ate raw ramen noodles from a bag while Annie laughed out like we were at a pajama party. It was a local train, so it was freezing and long ... but we made it back to our B + B in Delhi in time for our next train to Rishikesh.
Far from the dirty, dense streets of Delhi were the spiritual alleyways of Rishikesh, which sits at the base of the Himalayas and is consequently where the Beatles wrote the White album. It is filled with ashrams, meditation centres, massage, and claims to be the yoga capital of the world. Chiggers, if you are reading, this would be a perfect retreat town for you! It has this beautiful bridge that crosses the Ganges, connecting both sides. In a spiritual sense, it reminded me of Tzfat in israel, which is the kaballah centre.
We ate lots of healthy, hearty vegetarian indian food, strolled the streets in search of cheap handbags, and indulged in some massage, where i tried a shirodhara treatment. In a nutshell, they hook you up to this machine (in this case, it looked like a prop in the Never Ending Story), and hot oil drips continuously on your third eye. What an out of body experience! At one point, it felt like hands were rubbing my head. I'm pretty sure it was part of the hallucination. Even if it wasn't, I'm going to keep it that way.