A weekend in Mumbai – part one

Some quick Wikipedia facts on Mumbai for you:

– Not only is it the most populous city in India, it is the 2nd most populated city in the entire world (it’s topped by Shanghai)

– Its population is estimated at nearly 14 million people as of this year

– Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai, is home to approximately 800,000 people and has the highest literacy rate of any slum in India at nearly 70%

– It’s per-capita income is three times India’s national average at Rs. 128,000 (USD 2,910)

– Over 16 major Indian languages are spoken in Mumbai

– According to Lonely Planet, 2.5 million people pass through its main train station, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, per day

With all these impressive figures floating around my head, I was expecting Mumbai to be fast moving, crowded and chaotic. We’d thought a weekend would be enough to get a taste of India’s largest city. We followed Lonely Planet’s lead and decided to concentrate our efforts on the Southern most part of ‘Island City’, booking a hotel in the Churchgate neighborhood.

First impressions

As huge as Mumbai is and as short as our stay was, there is clearly so much that we didn’t see, so I feel I need to caveat my impressions. However, based on the time we did spend… Mumbai is just different! While it’s undeniably Indian, it has an international feeling to it that isn’t present in Delhi. The city has a real vibe to it, and its relative affluence is definitely seen and felt.

One of the first differences we noticed even during the cab ride from the airport to our hotel was that there were advertising billboards everywhere. Like, real ones. Massive, professional, commercially slick, all lit up. This is versus the simple hand-painted advertisements on the sides of buildings and shops that are to be seen everywhere in the north. What struck me especially was the number of billboards selling mutual funds and IPOs. Clearly there is disposable income, for some at least, in this city.

Another big difference in south Mumbai from other Indian cities – it’s pedestrian friendly. I loved our stay in Delhi, but did find it frustrating at times how limited my movement was. We had short walks to the local market for our daily coffee fix, but to get anywhere else, a car or rickshaw was necessary. Even in the quiet residential neighborhood we were staying in, the roads were narrow, dirty, potholed and crowded and we were constantly shooed to move onto the dirt piles on the sides of the road (construction was going on everywhere) by honking bikes, rickshaws and cars. In Mumbai, there were actual sidewalks. Wide, clean, spacious sidewalks. We could and did walk everywhere and it felt great! I wonder how much Mumbai had to do to achieve this – we noticed also that both rickshaws (man and gas propelled both) and cows are banned from the city. Amazing too was that after a day of walking around, I was noticeably cleaner than after even a quarter of an hour being out and about – as evidenced clearly by the state of my face wipes at the end of the day! 😉

For all these signs of a healthy city, it felt like there were a lot more homeless beggars on the streets. Although the amount of ground we covered on foot may have meant that we had more opportunity to witness this than in other cities we’ve been to.

Things to love

After those initial impressions, what I noticed and just loved about the city was its incredible architecture and beautiful flora.

Mumbai is remarkable in India for its modern, urban skyline – it’s home to India’s 43 tallest buildings. But it is also known for its colonial era Victorian and Gothic architecture which was just gorgeous. Because of this, it’s the place in India that for me where I have most felt the influence of the British reign. There were so many beautiful sites but what I loved the most was the High Court building. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me when we went to look at it!

It’s also a city just full of trees. There are lots of palms, but what I couldn’t get enough of was the massive, gnarled, gorgeous banyans that were absolutely everywhere.

Beautiful buildings
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Terminus) was incredible; it looked more like a church than a transportation hub.
Inside the station
One of many animals carved on the outside of the station
My Banyan obsession
Banyans can grow to be massive! This one was nearly wide as the car parked in front of it
Banyan and a black Mumbaikar cab
For reasons unbeknownst to me, the base of many trees in Mumbai are painted in white and brick-colored paint
I love how the trees in India aren’t just for looking at. Often small shops or roadside businesses are set up under trees
This banyan is doubling as someone’s tie rack
Ganesh in a banyan

Past due

Many of the things I had expected from our time in Delhi – productive blog posting for one – didn’t turn up in the end. 🙂 We spent just over two weeks there. I’d had visions of all sorts of activities, but ended up being laid up by a potent and lingering chest cold, circumstance and inertia. The primary purpose of our time there was to support my friend Ritu and that I think we managed to do that well, so it’s all good.

Beyond that, our third (my fourth) stay in Delhi comprised mostly eating tons of excellent, home-cooked food, lots of relaxation (sometimes enforced – as an invalid in a household with five women, I got mothered a lot and got to try out Indian home remedies like pure ginger juice tempered with honey – hotcha!), a bit of retail therapy and time with Ritu and her family.

One big highlight for me was the puja that was held at the house the day before we left. Ritu arranged for the family priest from the local temple to come by to perform a private ritual of blessing for the house and its inhabitants (us included. :-)). He was a very sweet, little old man who has apparently been doing pujas for the family for decades.

The ceremony was simple but lovely. The priest prepares a space on the floor with all the implements of the ceremony – fire, oil, incense. Food, flowers and money that are symbolically sacrificed to the deities invoked. The priest is singing mantras during the whole thing; at certain points we were to join in and it felt SO great when suddenly I recognized the Gayatri mantra from my yoga practice and could sing along. It has been months since I last chanted anything and boy did it make me hungry for some yoga practice. 🙂 (Hopefully not too much longer till I get onto a mat!)

At other times during his chanting, he would give us rice or mithai (sweets) in our right hand which we would then need to offer up to the gods invoked, or we would have to throw a mixture of (if I remember correctly), grain and spices into a fire. During the second half of the puja, he wound red string around each of our wrists – a blessing to carry on from the ceremony. After it was all said and done, the house was full of sacred smoke – we had to set the fans to high and open all the doors and windows and it still took ages to clear. The priest was pleased though – now the house was thoroughly blessed. 😉

There’s more to write about Delhi and other things, but the new day is calling and we have lots we want to see. 🙂

Just to get completely caught up before I go, we’ve left India’s capital now and I am writing this from the private rooftop terrace of our hotel in Mumbai. It’s an overcast, quiet Sunday morning and my only company is a mob of crows who are performing their morning ablutions in a nearby pan of water or are otherwise just sitting about curiously glaring at me. 🙂 We only have a weekend in Mumbai. So far I am really loving it – and will try to write more about it later. 🙂

Photos from the puja
Implements for the ritual – fruit, oil, flowers, the grain substance we burned
Fruit, money, rice; water to bless it with
String tying
Handing out mithai (from our favorite, Bengali Sweets! 🙂 )
Adding oil to the fire
DSC_0149 - Version 2.jpg
After the ceremony; hands and feet

Back (tracking) in Delhi

We’ve been enticed us back to our wonderful home-away-from-home in India, my friend Ritu’s house. She’s going through some things at the moment that we are able to help out with while we are here. I am so grateful that we have the luxury of such freedom that we don’t even have to give it a second thought and can just come to help – incredible to have so few obligations or limitations.

We arrived back in Delhi last Thursday, Thanksgiving day. I’ve gotten sick again since we arrived. Varanasi is the dustiest place we’ve been to so far; I felt like I constantly had grit between my teeth when we were walking around. I wonder if this aggravated my respiratory system because I’m experiencing the biggest cold I’ve had in years. Today I’ve even lost my voice, which I don’t think has ever happened before.

As opposed to the illness in Jaisalmer though, this is a breeze. I don’t mind colds at all, and I am being absolutely coddled by the women of the household. It’s like having five moms. So I am in great hands and have a perfect excuse to be lazy. 🙂

It should also be the perfect opportunity to catch up on this travel journal. So I’ll be backtracking in the upcoming posts, trying to capture memories from Jaipur to Varanasi before I forget them. 🙂

Snapshots from Delhi

It’s our last night in Delhi. Tomorrow we are off on the next leg of our adventure, heading first west to the deserts and colorful cities in Rajasthan and then east to the icons of India in Uttar Pradesh, the Taj Mahal and Varanasi.

It’s been such a gift to be able to stay with Ritu and her family all this time. Beyond being utterly spoiled by the entire household, it’s been a wonderful opportunity for us to have such a different experience of India, staying in one place for so long till we really started to get to know the neighborhood, being around for day-to-day life, eating home-cooked meals, tagging along on errands. Ritu and her family have been such gracious hosts and so generous with their time and insight-providing commentary on everything from national politics and Hindu mythology to shopping advice and our favorite recipes.

It’s been balm for my heart too to have time with Ritu. All the hours we spent chatting have been great for me, giving me perspective and insight. Ironically I’ve been giving her a lot of advice on situations she’s going through at the moment but all of it has been things applicable to my own experiences and that I would benefit from doing myself. Interesting. Let’s see if I can start taking my own advice! 😉 Either way, I’ll be leaving Delhi with a very full belly and heart.

In the mean time … Here are some little things I want to remember from this visit to Delhi.

  • The pleasantly astringent smell of marigolds at the Sai Baba temple
  • The incredibly intricate and delicate henna designs the men at the local market were creating on women’s hands for the holidays, and the distinct, slightly citrus smell of the oil rubbed on the skin before applying the henna
  • Fresh pomegranate juice at the Sai Juice Stand is sublime
  • As is sweet potato roasted at a street stand, cut up and served with lemon juice and plenty of masala and eaten with toothpicks
  • The incredible smile of the youngest son of the family who run an outdoor ironing business right outside Ritu’s house. He is such a little cutie and has the hugest, sweetest smile. The best was when we played a bit of soccer with him 🙂
  • The man lighting a lamp in a small shrine set on a wall behind his outdoor flower stand while we were buying roses for Shashi
  • The funny, puffy man sitting like some sort of barefoot, Pillsbury dough boy buddha on a table at the Bengali Sweets shop. Balding, bespectacled, round and all in white he never moved from his spot the whole time we were there but just sat there organizing a huge, and I mean huge, wad of money
  • The distinct, nasal voices (kind of like auctioneers in slow motion) in which men call out their wares and prices outside as they push their carts down the street that runs along our window or at the chaotic marketplaces
  • The delicate flavor and texture of the simple but totally delicious chapatis made in Ritu’s home, and how good they are when they are still piping hot from the griddle
  • Being able to laugh with the women working in house, despite not speaking the same language
  • Some huge, heartfelt hugs with Ritu, and the moments I realized that we were both learning the same lessons, even if they are taking different shapes in both our lives
  • Daily ‘coffee dates’ at the local Café Coffee Day with Roman
  • The half friendly, half rude manager at the Gupta Brothers’ electronics store where we spent a lot of time in the process of fixing Ritu’s laptop; especially how he hung out in his little shop in his socks, and times we’d arrive just after puja and the place would be stuffy with too much incense
  • The elegant and expressive way Shashi speaks with her hands, especially when arguing with someone over prices
  • The gentle touch of Shashi’s fingers as she gave me a blessing during Diwali

Pics from our Delhi stay

Just some recent bits and pieces from Delhi. First, a visit to the beautiful Baha’i Lotus Temple. Then, Ritu’s back and we are preparing for Diwali – getting really excited for the festivities on Friday. 🙂


Plaque on the way, with the temple in the distance


Plaque detail


Approaching the temple


I love walking barefoot at temples. 🙂


Temple detail with pigeons 🙂


One of the pools surrounding the temple


A Diwali Mela in our neighborhood


Houses in our neighborhood are getting decked out in lights for Diwali


Beautiful Diwali designs with tea lights at the Dilli Haat Market



High tech fire extinguishers?


Ceramic Diwali lamps at the market



Observing the weather

I had a good talk with Roman today. Have I mentioned lately that I am so lucky to have such an amazing boyfriend? 🙂 We’ve been having a relatively quiet few days in Delhi. It’s not like during our last visit to Delhi, when I think I was going a bit stir crazy and I know for sure I was in a pretty bad mental (and hormonal) space. But I have been feeling a bit restless lately, and it’s proving a good opportunity to take stock of my mental state and remember the original motivation behind this trip.

My friend Ritu is away on business, her mom has got a cold and Roman is seriously embroiled in a major IT project, trying to resuscitate Ritu’s failing laptop. So things have been a bit on the quiet side, and we’ve been choosing to take it easy. We’ve been sorting out all the logistics for the next bit of the trip, spending hours pouring over Lonely Planet and surfing through the internet and eventually making bookings. We’ve done some leisurely bits of tourism, I’ve finally gotten around to mending that needed doing. We’ve watched a couple of movies, I’ve been enjoying Ritu’s small library (reading Jack Kornfield for the first time – a buddhist who is recommending impartial and compassionate observation of the self as a good starting place for increasing inner peace. One metaphor in the book is seeing the true self as the sky, and our emotions and reactions as weather patterns that come and go across that sky. Seems like a pretty smart guy. 🙂 ).  The guys at the local Cafe Coffee Day practically know us by name at this point. And of course my love affair with food has continued. So it’s not like we’ve been doing nothing.

But it’s enough of a relaxed pace to kick up some of my little neurosis. 🙂

There’s the immediate guilt at the thought that we are in India for goodness sake, we should be doing more, we should be doing everything! If I’m not sight-seeing, exploring away from the tourist spots, practicing yoga, taking cultural classes, volunteering with street kids, Tibetan refugees and conservation efforts, having insight-providing conversations, making new friends, trying new foods, deepening my relationship with Roman, keeping up with the folks back home, experiencing inner growth, writing postcards, relaxing fully and having  the time of my life, well then, I’m simply not doing enough! 😉

The saving grace is that while part of me really feels that way, another (saner) part of me can also see me feeling this way and making these demands of myself and just laugh. I have the perspective (and a wonderful boyfriend) to remind me that we are on vacation and there are no rules about what we should or should not be doing. To boot, we are just at the start of our extended holiday. We both worked extremely hard in the months and years leading up to this – some down time is not uncalled for. 🙂

Overcoming that though, there is still plenty of static going on in my brain.

When I left the US to come to Switzerland all those years ago, I had the opportunity to really live for myself. With no ties in Zürich in the beginning, I had no obligations towards anything aside from my job. Non-business hours were mine and mine alone. Back in the States, my love for and need to please the people in my life meant that I had overextended myself beyond my physical, energetic and emotional means. During the first few months in Zürich, I had the luxury of being able to do only what I really wanted to with my time. And with no distractions – no social engagements, no TV, no internet, no expectations – I had the space to find out how to listen to myself and discover what it was that I wanted, both in general and in the moment. I felt genuinely present in my life and in the moment for the majority of the time, and I loved it.

I was lucky enough to experience this at different points during my time in Zürich. But as I mentioned in my first post, towards the end I was feeling less and less ‘in my own life’ – less connected to myself and less present. For me, coming on this trip is, in part, about trying to be more present again.

So, I also have to laugh at myself, watching how my brain is fighting doing just that during these days of down time in Delhi.

Traveling and seeing new things, it’s easier to be present because I am simply taking in the new sights and experiences – my ego takes a back seat. But take away the entertainment of something new, and my brain steps in right away. I’ve been diving into books, podcasts, iPhone games (good when used for downtime, less good when used for escapism) as one means of avoiding the present.

I also find that I am daydreaming about what happens after the big trip is over. Which is somewhat ridiculous considering it’s only just started. I’m not too concerned about it as I’m not building up any expectations or spending any real energy on it – it’s just light-hearted daydreaming – but it’s still being anything but present in the here and now.

I’ve also been spending a lot (and I mean a lot) of energy on my favorite pass time – worrying about other people’s comfort and other people’s perception of me.

Are we over staying our welcome at my friends’ house? Am I getting on her mothers’ nerves? Are we being entertaining house guests? Are we polite enough? Are we being too polite? How should I act so that I can put the women working in the house at ease while not being too informal with them which might be awkward? Am I behaving too much like a tourist or too much like a tourist who is trying not to behave like a tourist when we are hanging out at the Cafe Coffee Day? What do the local people there think of us? What about the other tourists? Is it culturally awkward for me to be wearing a salwar kameez? Am I being culturally aware enough? Am I being poised enough? Am I pretty enough? Smart enough? Generous enough? Present enough???

And that is just the short list.

All of the nervous energy spent on those questions is very effective at keeping me from being present and just experiencing. Roman was talking about the difference between the need to control a situation when you feel like you are separate from it, feel like an outsider, versus the ability to just be present and experience a situation when you know that you are a part of it. Knowing that you are where you are meant to be in your life and that we are all part of the same thing, trusting that what is going on for the people around you is perfect as it is and their reaction is not your responsibility, trusting that you just have to be responsible for yourself and that where you are is just perfect too – a trust based on a degree of faith I suppose.

I understand these concepts on an intellectual level. When I was at the center of my life during those wonderful months in Switzerland, I was also living those concepts. But I guess I need some more practice to really ‘get it’ to the point that I can act from this knowing.

I am grateful that at this point in my life I have the ability to (mostly) see my thoughts and reactions for what they are. I am grateful I have the opportunity now to practice – to let go of fears and insecurities based on the beliefs that I am not good enough, that I am separate from the world and responsible for its reaction to me, rather than for my reaction to it. To see these how these thoughts and insecurities thrashing through my brain keep me from engaging in a genuine way with the present moment. And to try to disengage with those thoughts in my head and instead start genuinely engaging with the experiences and people right in front of me.

It’s great to have this time in Delhi (even with the slight discomforts I am creating for myself), to remember some of the original motivation for this trip. Here’s hoping I’ll get better at this whole being present thing as we get deeper into our journeys! And that I’ll have the compassion and perspective not to beat myself up about it when I don’t get it perfect all the time. 🙂

Away for the holidays

It may have just been Halloween in the States, but in Delhi, it’s beginning to look a lot like Diwali. 🙂 We’ve been invited by my friend to stay through the holiday, so we can get an insider’s view of the Hindu festival. I’m really excited for the chance to see a bit more about Hindu traditions. It’s weird – although 80% of the country is Hindu, I feel like I haven’t had very much exposure to Hinduism since I’ve been here. We have been to a few temples, and it has been very interesting to hear my friend’s parents’ thoughts about their faith and practice, but somehow I don’t feel like I’ve really connected to or experienced much of the Hindu religion. This is as opposed to interactions I’ve had with elements of other faiths in India so far.

I found the Sikh’s Golden Temple both fascinating and moving. To be fair, I have a bit of an inkling about Sikhism already because of the American Sikhs I know. Having contact with that community woven into my yoga practice over the years has given Sikhism a special place in my heart. The Sikh community in India is different of course, but still I found/find a certain inexplicable sense of comfort from contact with that community and I appreciate what I know about the faith – the emphasis on openness; treating everyone equally, things like that. There is an energy of self-respect and fierce peacefulness that many of the practicing Sikhs at the Golden Temple projected that I found very compelling.

I also absolutely loved being in the community of Tibetan Buddhists at Mcleod Ganj. The relaxed but earnest interweaving of their profound faith into their everyday life was in my eyes a thing of beauty. From my perspective, the way they interacted with each other and their environment was open, relaxed, caring. The atmosphere was less formal than in other places we have been in India and I loved that lack of structured social interaction giving way to genuine exchanges. The energy in the Temples there was very striking to me as well – mundane fantastic. 🙂

I haven’t had any chance to interact with Muslims in India yet, still I was surprised by how moved I was at the Mughal historic and religious sites we have been to so far. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed, but the sheer elegance and beauty of the mosques, mausoleums, minarets, etc. has struck me every time. Not just the Taj Mahal, which is mind-blowingly beautiful. Humayun’s tomb, the Qutb Minar, even the buildings within the Red Fort of Delhi – walking around at all these places has always filled me with peace.

We even have had contact with the Baha’i faith, visiting the Lotus Temple in Delhi. Built in the 1980s, it doesn’t have the historical oomph of most of the other sites we’ve visited, but it is still an impressive bit of architecture and landscaping, and reading the tenets of the Baha’i faith, I really loved a lot of what they had to say: about respecting people of other faiths, the equality of the sexes, the importance of education.

In contrast, I don’t feel like I understand hardly anything about Hinduism at all yet. I know some of the stories from the Bhagavad Gita because of my yoga training, but I have yet to discover the beauty conveyed by my teachers in Zürich anywhere in India. I’ve found the temples objectively beautiful but somehow opaque – I have no insight into the how, what, why behind the rituals performed there, the stories the artwork is telling. Let’s see what the experience of Diwali brings. 🙂

So far, it’s reminding me of Christmas in the States. Although it is far from wintry, we are noticing that the nights are cooler, and coming in quicker and darker than before. Decorative lights are showing up on peoples’ homes and on storefronts. The markets are getting increasingly crowded and hectic as people are doing their last-minute shopping. According to Wikipedia, this is what it’s all about:

Diwali involves the lighting of small clay lamps (diyas) filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil. During Diwali celebrants wear new clothes and share sweets and snacks with family members and friends. Some Indian business communities begin the financial year on the first day of Diwali, hoping for prosperity the following year. In Hinduism, Deepavali marks the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom of Ayodhya after defeating (the demon king) Ravana, the ruler of Lanka, in the epic Ramayana.

Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you a bit more after we celebrate on Friday. 🙂 In the mean time, I’m enjoying the festive atmosphere. I’m getting into the spirit of the holidays  as well by stuffing myself like a Thanksgiving turkey. I am still totally drooling over the food at Ritu’s house (for example, lunch today was a laundry list of some of my favorite things: Paneer cooked with onion and tomato, bitter gourd, a gorgeous northern style sag dish (sag = leafy greens. This was a combination of different ones, including spinach), a simple but wonderful yellow lentil dal, fried corn roti (a special treat; they are richer than the normal whole wheat roti we have every day, which aren’t cooked in oil), and of course their divine, homemade yogurt. Heaven!), and will no doubt need to go on a strict diet when we leave here!

Since my cooking class last week, I’ve been invited into the kitchen here and have been taking instruction from the lovely women working here. Feels great to be cooking even a little bit after being without a kitchen for two months. Happy to have the smell of onions and garlic on my fingers again. 🙂

So, there is lots to enjoy this last week in Delhi. Next week we’ll be running around Rajasthan . There’s so much to see in that one state alone – India really is amazing!

Delhi delights

So, catching up with the here and now finally in this blog: We are in Delhi, have been and will be for a bit longer. It’s an extended stay as I’m helping my dear friend Ritu out with a couple of things while we are in town. Not to mention we are also getting spoiled totally rotten by her and her family! They’ve taken us in as their own kin and we are really getting the royal treatment.

We are taking advantage of the time here to check out some of the tourist sites Delhi has to offer and get a bit of an insider’s view as we wander around town with Ritu and her mom. I’m also enjoying the girl time immensely – long chats with Ritu, checking out the shops, a spa visit (:-D ), glasses of wine. Feels totally indulgent and lovely! And we are also indulging our love of the food here – trying new things every day and so far everything has been delicious. (with one exception: Paan! ;-))  I am pretty sure we will be leaving Delhi a bit heavier than we entered it! 😉

Last night we had an unusual treat – Italian food at the Imperial Hotel! This has got to be one of the poshest places I’ve ever been to. Massive, elegant, clean, peaceful and, above all, incredibly opulent inside, it felt worlds away from the Delhi we have come to know and it was surreal to be transported in this way simply by driving through the gate and stepping through the hotel’s doors.  I know wealth like this exists everywhere in the world but somehow it felt more extreme due to the massive gap between rich and poor in this country. Bizarre but also a really fun night out with Roman, Ritu and her mom. I think my stomach was equally confused and delighted by the re-introduction to pasta and Parmesan after so long! 😉

We’re also using the time to work on the logistics for the next leg of the journey. It’s incredible to me that we have so many options and so much freedom to choose where, what, when. What a blessing. Life is GOOD! 🙂

Paan: intense flavors – almost too intense 😉


We got henna designs on our hands



Apparently, once the henna sets, they say that the darkness of the tint indicates how well your mother-in-law will treat you. Looks like I am in luck if I ever get married. 😉


Night markets


Statues for sale, viewed from behind at the night market


I love the bags hanging from the trunk of the tree


Fake flowers for sale


Yummy roast sweet potato


Back at beautiful Qutb Minar – love it there. Woman on a cell phone among the ruins.


Building detail


Bamboo scaffolding inside of the buildings


Building detail


Building detail, tower in the background (unfortunately the program MarsEdit seems to have a bug; it cuts off some of the landscape photos. 😛 )


Fountain and fine art inside the ultra posh Imperial Hotel

Me and Miss Swiss; reflections from Delhi

The breeze coming through the open window is cooler after the thunderstorm – the first we’ve experienced in Delhi. Although the daylight had been coming to an end anyhow, the darkness grew thicker and faster than normal and a breeze began to rise, stirring up the leaves on the trees and the dust in the street; from a distance the thunder began to grumble. I could hear and smell these things through the window’s screens in our cozy room. Now the wind and rain and hail have come and gone. The city’s dust and heat are tamped down for now and the darkness outside feels peaceful as I’m writing.

Tomorrow will mark my seventh week in India. Our little tour in Uttarakhand is feeling ages away. I’ve been basking in the comforts of Delhi. On this, my third visit, the city – or at least parts of it and certain aspects of it, are starting to feel more familiar. We are again tucked away in the generous hospitality of my friend’s family home in south Delhi. And, the biggest comfort of all: this time my friend Ritu is here. During our last stay, she was away on business. It’s feeling like heaven to have time with her. Beyond being an incredible boyfriend, Roman is also a great travel companion: relaxed, fun, supportive; he is my prince. But boyfriends are not the same thing as girlfriends and the company of a dear friend is simply irreplaceable. So it’s just great to see her and to have time to catch up; it’s helping me to relax and get more grounded on this trip.

Even nearly two months in, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to discover I’m still unravelling knots of past (and perhaps even more recent) stresses, still letting go of my corporate, ‘need-to-be-productive’ habits and easing into and discovering myself within this new lifestyle. Seems like there are layers of this stuff to move through and discard. For the most part, I’m able to maintain a sense of humor during the process, which is helpful. I was able to laugh at myself for the trip from Rishikesh to Ramnagar for example. The control freak (let’s call her Miss Swiss 😉 )in me was squirming like crazy at the prospect of such a loosely formulated journey.

The guy at the hotel in Rishikesh had been able to tell us in broken English that there were a couple of buses a day to Ramnagar from Haridwar, the next major town over from Rishikesh, but details such as when these buses might run, how long they’d take, etc. were not forthcoming. That was enough for Roman – I pretended it was enough for me too and watched little Miss Swiss inside me have a bit of a freak out. As a last ditch effort at organization, a.k.a. control, I started taking photos of the maps in the area so that we would have some sort of back up in case the whole direct bus thing ended up being just a myth.

We took a cab down to the bus station in Rishikesh and as luck would have it the man hanging outside of the first bus we came to was calling out ‘Hardwar! Haridwar’ (two equally recognized pronunciations for the place). We climbed right in – easy peasy – and the bus was off shortly there after. I was feeling pretty confident and started to relax, until I noticed that the bus was heading off on a completely different route than the bus that had brought us from Haridwar to Rishikesh a few days earlier. Last time we’d driven through small towns to get there. This time, we were seemingly driving through the middle of nowhere – skirting a river, moving across empty plains and wooded areas with not a person, dwelling or town in sight. What if we mis-heard the destination? What if we were on some sort of scam bus? What if we ended up in the middle of nowhere with no way back?? My inner control freak started spinning out of control. I did my best to bat back paranoia and enjoy the absolutely beautiful landscape that was rolling by outside the bus window and of course, eventually we arrived without incident at the center of Haridwar. Sit down Miss Swiss!

The bus station at Haridwar was awesomely obscure. I sat down with our luggage and diligently put Miss Swiss in the corner while Roman did the leg work of trying to find out what bus might get us to Ramnagar and at what time. Every single person he spoke to had a different answer for him. My map photos ended up coming in handy after all (score one for being paranoid! 😀 ) – the best information we received involved taking a bus to Kashipur and changing there for Ramnagar, and the map corroborated this logic. After waiting around for a couple of hours, we crammed our stuff and ourselves onto the most ergonomically awful seats ever invented and hunkered down for the six-hour ride, which, aside from resulting in two very numb derrieres, was very enjoyable between the incredibly loud Punjabi music the driver was playing and the striking scenery along the way. We were instructed to disembark in Kashipur; by this time night had fallen and so had Miss Swiss! Good thing too, because finding a bus in Kashipur was much dicier than in Haridwar.

Inquiries led to the discovery that there were no more scheduled buses at that time of the night. All we could do was stand along the side of the road leading to Ramnagar, wait for a bus to pass, and call out to the ticket collector to see if they happened to be heading in the right direction. This technique was explained to us (in even more broken English than the guy at the hotel) by a slightly tipsy, older gentleman who was apparently also waiting for a ride in to Ramnagar. Roman shared a cigarette with him and that was enough to cement a temporary friendship and even get me adopted as the guy’s new daughter! It took over an hour of standing by the side of the buggiest road I’ve ever encountered (this was one of the few in town with a proper lamp post, which attracted literally tens of thousands of harmless but very active bugs that kept landing and crawling all over us) until a bus arrived that would take us. With barely any space left, we perched on the metal mound housing the engine; I had to keep moving my knees so the bus driver had room enough to shift gears, and we barreled into the dark night (outside of town all street lights disappeared) for about an hour until we arrived in Ramnagar.

All in all, it was relatively straight forward – people were more or less happy to answer our questions – even when the answers were in Hindi or contradictory it was heartening to see how willing they were to help out complete strangers. And we didn’t end up having to spend a night sleeping in a bus depo or getting dropped off at a completely obscure, random destination in the middle of a desert, as Miss Swiss had been contemplating in the morning. In fact, we made it to Ramnagar in really good time, all things told. That being said, I was very happy to check into the very first hotel we found – and so was Miss Swiss! 😉

Wherever you go, there you are, even in India

Ok so all that stuff I was saying in the previous post about grace and openness and all that seams to be unravelling at the seems these past days. It’s not about India or anything that’s happening externally. Rather, I’m feeling totally uncomfortable in my own mind and anxious about just about everything we are doing, or not doing. I’m most likely too deep in it to have clear perspective but I have some theories. (Boys, please avert your eyes if you can’t handle women discussing their particular bodily functions.)

I’ve figured out some things about my body over the years, and I can imagine that all the sitting I’ve been doing for the past month plus all the yoga and jogging I haven’t been doing has helped contribute to one of the most unpleasant periods I’ve had in years. I can’t remember the last time I have felt so massivly PMS-y or had such bad cramps – I even had to stop walking today while we were out when they were just too much which never happens to me. I’m breaking out, sore and sensitive and just feeling generally blah.

On top of that I think I am missing the momentum and support of the group travel and I know I am having a hard time sitting still and accepting the generosity of our incredible hosts (As some of you may know, I sometimes am challenged by receiving… On another note, more on our incredible hosts once I get my self-gripe out of my system.). And I’m feeling the need to sink my teeth into the this travel thing and really start exploring (while simultaneously fearing that I might end up being a bashful and lame traveler, oy).

All this while Roman has arrived exhausted from so much work and wants nothing more than to just be for a while – to sleep, take it easy, ease into being in India and finish up on the last of the tech prep which he ran out of time for back home. So basically our instincts right now are to want totally opposite things while I am also overly sensitive, verging on crabby – please send the guy your sympathies! He’s managing to stay patient and sweet, and I to my credit can at least understand with my mind why it’s important for him to have down time and can grasp the fact that for once in my life there isn’t any time pressure. So even if the rest of me is feeling totally impatient, there is a small voice of logic fighting the good fight.

So, enough griping and here is where we are at now: we’ve been in Delhi for nearly a week. We are staying in the apartment upstairs from my friend’s parents in the south of the city. It’s a detatched apartment and we can come and go as we please, but are welcome in the big house at any time. Her parents are just lovely. Generous, interesting and articulate with their insights on their home country. Generous in all other ways as well – we’ve been taking full advantage of their WiFi and have been having all our meals there.

The food is just incredible. The family has three women working in the household. I’m still getting used to this – coming from a typical Western upbringing it feels kind of weird to have someone do everything for you rather than being able to help myself to something out of the fridge or clear my own dishes. At first it made me squirm with “privileged white girl” guilt but this is being tempered with trying to find out how to be a gracious guest by Indian standards (i.e., not wanting to offend our hosts and their staff by doing anything that might imply their hosting/serving abilities are poor) and trying to understand the situation in general by the values and culture of the people in it. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but I’m glad to have the chance to take a closer look.

These women are incredible cooks and every meal is a feast with numerous vegetable dishes, a different dal every day, home made yogurt, cut raw vegetables, piping hot freshly made chapatis, and often a meat dish at dinner. And then a different Indian sweet from a local pastry specialist every day. It’s really just incredible and I have been eating past being full at every sitting just being everything is so tasty. Some of the vegetables I’ve never even heard of before, let alone tasted. Of these my favorite is something I think was called bitter gourd – you can guess how it tastes. 🙂 There have been a bunch of paneer (a type of mild Indian cheese) based dishes that are also high on my list of favorites.  And all the dals (basically legume stews) have been outstanding. I haven’t been in the mood for much meat so I’ve mostly been sticking with the veggie dishes, but I did try a bite of and was pleasantly surprised by goat. Today for lunch we had a more simple dish which may become one of my comfort foods in India. It’s called parantha and it’s basically a stuffed, grilled chapati. Ours had fillings of lightly spiced cauliflower or potato, but they can be filled with other things too. As far as I could tell, once filled, the parantha is grilled in butter, which to me made it reminiscent of and just as comforting and satisfying as a grilled cheese sandwich .

So, with all this eating to be done and the various IT stuff Roman has been setting up for us, we haven’t been out that much in Delhi yet. We have explored the surrounding neighborhood some – it’s quiet and lush and lovely – plus the nearby shopping area and we went on a field trip to another shopping district to get ourselves set up with local phone numbers on our cell phones. We’ve become big fans of the auto rickshaw (also knowns as a Tuk Tuk in some parts of the world). Much more fun than a cab plus better ventilation (which can be a good or a bad thing, depending!). 🙂 Today we finally did something touristy, and went to the Red Fort, which was lovely – although I have to say I was more struck by the Red Fort in Agra.

Tomorrow we have another full day here to finish any last bits and pieces and maybe fit in another sight or two, and then the next day we are hopping on a plane to Dharamsala and we’ll head up to McLeod Ganj and see if we can’t find a hotel (booking ahead at the budget places doesn’t seem to be an option – booking online was impossible and the one place I was able to reach by phone told me they didn’t know if they had anything free but that I should stop by and see. The impression given was not that they were booked out, but that booking ahead was a foreign concept. 🙂 Wonder what we will find when we get there.). That was my favorite place of all the locations visited on the group trip – I’m looking forward to being back in the cool, green mountains (and hopefully out of my messy head and out of my own way).