Colors, Gods, Wedding parades and Road chaos

Trip Start Feb 05, 2009
Trip End Dec 16, 2010

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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Saturday, December 5, 2009

Already some time ago...crossing into India…not difficult but definitely more strict and more paperwork then Pakistan. The guy behind the counter pisses Mira of by pulling the filling out form from her hands because she Is not quick enough. Filling out health form, Carnet the Passage, more forms and we are allowed to enter this Spiritual Continent. Total time only about 45min. Welcome to India!

Our first destination: Amritsar. As soon as we cross the border, chaos enters the road! We have been warned for this. Crossing countries like China and Pakistan, we slowly got used to this, but India is worse! Blind crossings, Cows taking a nap on the Highway, a guy who wants to cross with his goats looks like a suicide mission as cars pass with 90km/hour. Wrong lane driving, towards us, It is all about the size. As a pedestrian you have no rights, jumping out of the way is the only solution, then in ranking order: cycle rickshaws, motorbikes, auto rickshaws, cars, vans and buses / trucks! Of course there is only one king of the road: The Holy Cow. All traffic drops dead if this lovely animal (also buffalo/bull etc.) wants to cross the road or decides to stop in the middle of a junction. Fascination and irritation at the same time!

Finding a place to park, not easy in busy India! We drive around Amritsar until it gets dark, trying to get a spot on hotel grounds, but no luck. Too many weddings going on. Just as I am getting really fed up, rickshaws passing me with 2cm space in between, trying to avoid cyclists, crazy bikers and scared to death that I might hit a cow in the dark: An auto rickshaw driver tells us bout Ms Bandhari guesthouse. He can take us there. My western mind is suspicious: How many rupees? You give what you feel like giving. Right. We will have a look. This place is like little Eden in busy India. As soon as we drive through the gate, the greens welcome us with a Shanti feeling. It is expensive (compared to Pakistan), but we are tired and fed up. And then awaits us a nice surprise: Arjen, the Dutch cyclist we met in Pakistan before, is also here! That evening we meet up with Roel (a Dutch biker), Nicole (a Swiss biker) and Karl (a German truck-home driver)! Together we set off the fireworks that we kept for our first Indian evening! We made it!!!!

Initially only planned to stay for 2 days….which turns into a week! I am very, very tired. I am not ready to meet with busy India and the lovely but curious habitants, who want to sell me lots of things for 10x the price. The first few days I sleep a lot. Mental breakdown from the quick traveling through 14 countries in 3 months (for others plenty of time, for me too quick), 24/7 traveling with someone with lack of own space and my worries if Frits would make it to India. I am mentally tired. Ms. Bandhari's guesthouse is the perfect place to take a chill pill. We are having a great time with the other overlanders. Arjen playing the guitar in the evening, Nicole and I taking our tarot cards out, while the others are playing cards. Feels like we are one overlander family.

Amritsar: The Sikh city with their most important Temple: The Golden Temple. It is such an amazing place. The temple is surrounded by water, which is bordered by a huge walkway and white buildings. 4 Sikh men are playing the Tabla and singing continuously. One morning I spend hours on the first floor, finding the peace in me again. People come from far to pay their respects, bathing in the water and or drinking it for purification. Women wearing beautiful colorful saris, men with turbans on their head, the guarding Sikhs with their knives and yellow ropes, just to name a few of the things I saw. The Sikh religion denounces the Cast system, claiming that all people are equal and should be treated the same. The communal kitchen is an amazing example: Free food is shared with anybody. One day Karl, Nicole and I go there as well, going into a big hall where we sit down in long rows, waiting for the food to be served. It feels like a rainbow food circle, without the circle and the singing. Yes the food was great, no I did not get sick!

After a week, with car insurance arranged, owner of a new gas bottle, took us 5 days to organize! (the Spanish one could not be filled), an Indian suit made, Indian Sim cards bought, it really is time to move on. The rest of India is waiting for us. Arjen wants to travel around India without cycling, so decides to leave the bicycle in Dehli. If he can come with us to Dehli? Of course, bicycle on the roof and we are off.

With new energy driving on Indian roads it not so bad! Dehli supposed to be the worst. Mira is taking the challenge. 2 hours later we arrive at our destination: Radission Hotel in Noida district. Well done Mira!! We are allowed to park on the sandy parking across the road from this luxury hotel.  Here we wait for Marcel, a friend of Mira who is coming over for business. He surprises us with Pepernoten, dankjewel voor deze Sinterklaas lekkernij! I spend the next few days in and around the van, still in need for some time by myself, while Mira and Arjen are exploring Dehli center. Meeting up with Marcel in the evening. All the time we can use the hotel toilet with staff polite and smiling. I am very surprised that we are allowed to camp on their parking for such a long time! With no charge! That weekend I see my first (and many to follow) wedding procession: 12 men carrying huge light creations, fueled by a huge generator at the end. An orchestra (soort Fanfare) makes as much 'music’ as possible, a few drummers generating special rhythms, on which the family of the groom dance-walks. The groom closes the procession sitting in a special horse cart, beautifully decorated! They are on their way to the hotel, where the bride is waiting for him. A Hindustan wedding lasts for 5 days and is full of traditions and rituals. One of them: The groom arrives without shoes, he then has to bribe and pleat to the family-in-law-to-be to get them back, only then may be enter the hotel and meet his bride. I don’t know if this wedding is out of love or family decision. It is still strongly part of Indian culture that the wedding is arranged by the family and although it is officially banned, a ‘Drugha’ (a huge wedding gift to guarantee the financial future of the bride) is still widely expected, especially in the countryside.

Marcel has to go to Chennai for business, we continue to Agra. Arjen also wants to go there, so again he joins us in the van. In stead of taking the highway, we end of taking the back roads. This takes us much longer, so we stopover in Aligarh. We happen to stop in front of a hotel, where a huge wedding is taking place that evening. By change we start talking to the drum band, a group of great guys from Dehli. About 10min later I have taking out my Djembe, a small crowd has gathered and Raj and Ravi are giving away a drum session, next to our van! Raj is taking is for food somewhere, where I ask to cook to help with chapatti making. Pretty difficult and hot! Later he tells us we are invited to come to the wedding. So that evening try to blend into a crowd of 1000+ people scattered around a huge area full of lights, food and drink stalls, stages with dance performers and singers! It feels like a mix between Pinkpop and Fairytale land, just beautiful! It turns out that 2 brothers are getting married with 2 sisters, so 2-in-1 wedding. The evening starts with the procession I have seen before, once inside the grounds they get of the horses and start to dance to the intense drum rhythms with some friends and family members. The brides are still nowhere to be seen. Late in the evening they come walking out of a building, wearing a beautiful red and gold sari and decorated with lots of gold jewelry!

They are represented to the public on a huge stage, where lots of photos are taken and special rituals are taking place. The guests, specially the guys, find it very interesting that we are there. At some point Raj pulls us backstage where the photo shoot begins. For a moment it feels like I am the one getting married…It is great fun with the drummers, even though I speak hardly any Hindu and they little English. With the promise to visit them in Delhi when I come there again, we say goodbye. I cannot stop wondering what the family will think when later they will see the photos and video of the wedding and spot 3 tourists in the midst of it all!

The next day we make it to Agra, the city of the one of the 7 world wonders: Taj Mahal. One guy takes us to a hotel, where we are able to park the car. With only 2 cm space left on each side I am able to squeeze the van onto the inner parking. The hotel is not finished yet, but it will do for one night. Mira and I sleep in the van anyway. I start talking with Sunil, one of the guys helping out at the hotel, doing tour guide work as well. He has a demanding way of communication, but we get along fine! He shows me their temple place. Each hotel/shop/etc. has one, big or small. Cannot start the day without praying! He is impressed with the fact that I know some of the gods already. To make it clear, Hinduism does not worship one god, but many. You pray to Ganesha for new beginning, Shiva for strength, Laksmi for good business, to name a few.

The room is far to expensive (typical tourist rip-off) so the next day Arjen moves to Shanti lodge, near the Taj Mahal south gate. A great place with a rooftop terrace with great views on the TM. We are allowed to leave the car parked at the hotel. Of course I go and visit the TM, stay inside the grounds from sunrise to sunset. Indian people are not scared of the camera, but you can only take a photo of a woman if you ask first. That day I think more people took a photo of me then I took of them. Even in a tourist place like this, as a Westerner you are still an attraction!

I also start chatting with a group of 5 guys from Delhi, whom I meet again in the evening for some beers. One of the things discussed is the cultural difference and the wish to marry a western woman. How can they expect that we would marry and then live with them and their family-in-law for the rest of our lives. We are too independent for this. Just to mention one.

Roel, the Dutch biker, also arrived in Agra, so a Dutch reunion it is! I spend my time with them, Sunil and the Delhi guys, making it a busy socializing period! From Agra we wanna go to Varanasi and after back to Agra to continue into Rajasthan. As it will be difficult to park the car in the Old City and to take a break from driving, we decide to leave the car in Agra and go forth and back with the train. With great help of Sunil we are allowed to leave it parked at the hotel. Unfortunately on the day we that we booked the train a huge Muslim festival is taking place. Any other day nothing is happening at the hotel, but today 140 people come for lunch and dinner! Result: I have to remove the van, with the promise I can park it inside again before jumping on the train in the evening. Of course this is India. Time is not strict. So by the time we réally have to go, the van is not allowed inside yet, people are still eating. What to do? I make an intuitive decision: I give the car keys to Sunil, so he can put it back inside later. Fully aware of the fact that he can drive of any time with van and all things inside. Call me crazy, but something told me I can trust him. Mira is not so sure but we have run out of options. Note: after coming back from Varanasi the van is parked safely inside (only a small dent in on the right side) and all is ok! Thank you Sunil: for your great care and respecting my trust in you.

With the train to Varanasi: First we booked 3rd class to Gwalior, but as we are not able to find the wagon, we end up in a sleeper class instead. Luckily our tickets were not checked. I end up talking to a girl, who is Jain (religion), she and other are now in a special vasting period of 14 months!!! One day eating, one day not. Now they are half way through and just came back from a pilgrimage tour. We talk openly about arranged marriage and other things. For her this is normal and she talks without resentment or sadness about it. It is their culture and way of life. I find it hard to accept with my liberal western mind.

From Gwalior we hop on an overnight sleeper train. These trains remind me of the ones in Russia and China, each carriage with 54 beds, divided into 3-bunk beds. We could only book the more expensive airco class, but with it comes blankets, clean toilets and separation curtains ;-) The next morning we are there, only 2 hours late…One guy directs us to his rickshaw, bringing us to a great guesthouse in the old city. Of course we are fully aware that he receives commission for this, but decide to have a look anyway. He has chosen well, away from the very busy center with a great rooftop and good food. The staff is a bit strange, but friendly, chillas (wiet) widely available, but of course officially forbidden. Haggling over the room price and were are settled.

Hectic Varanasi; There are not enough words to describe this place based on the shores of the Holy river Ganga. All is happening here, at the same time. Taking a short stroll on the riverside and you can see full Indian life enfold. People taking a bath next to a boy washing his buffalos, a sadhu (holy man) taking a nap, guys doing big loads of cloth washing, while a bit further some people are meditating, oblivious of the hectic around them. And of course the (famous) burning ghat: a place where families gather to cremate their loved one. Before cremation the body is dipped in the water, after only the breast bone (for men) or hip bone (for woman) is thrown into the river. With about 140 cremations a day, this is a lot of wood and bones. Some death people are not cremated but thrown straight into the river: Lepra people, holy men, pregnant woman and kids <10 years old. Luckily for me I have not seen a death body flood around when I took the early morning boat trip…

Seeing Varanasi from the boat is amazing, just try to ignore all the other tourists who do the same thing! One morning I walked around by myself, starting at  05.30 o’clock. Of course the touts were awake already as well. Not feeling to say no all the time I retreated into silence. Making clear with hand gestures that I am not talking. Now the people didn‘t think I was crazy, because within meditation it is very common to have a silent day. So as soon as they noticed, they apologized and let me be. For anyone who is fed up with the touts, this is the best trick! For me it brought more awareness of my surroundings. One guru even invited me in for tea, a one-way conversation not being an obstacle for him.

Indian live, watched by many tourists nowadays. And of course this attracts lots of touts, trying to sell anything, cheap souvenirs, boat trips, rickshaw rides or "I want to practice my English-information", but only come and look at my shop after people. This is all very tiresome, but luckily I can ignore it quite well. One ear in, one ear out. Arjen and I both agree that there are too many guesthouses,  restaurants, shops and other tourist facilities, especially on the riverside. But despite all this, Varanasi still has not lots its magical atmosphere. It is special place. One that I would like to visit again one day.

Mira found it to hectic and even left for Sirpan with Roel for one day, escaping it all. At the same time I met up with Debra, who took me to a small school nearby, again the kids, again more convinced my work purpose will involve kids one day. Still not clear how and where. It could well be India as this place and I have a good connection.

By now we have returned from Varanasi, with a quick stopover in Agra to get the van. With the wish for some more relaxed place, we make our way into Rajastan, Bharatpur. Sunil is joining is for one day. We have a great laugh together, as friends. Mira is sightseeing the Bird Wild Life sanctuary, while I am chilling in the van. Must say I did miss this little house when staying in Varanasi. Guesthouses are great for socializing, but the van is really my home for now. Tomorrow on our way to Jaipur, to visit the Old Red City and meet again many touts…Shiva please give us enough energy to deal with them ;-)))

India: The land of colors, red chewing tobacco, rickshaw drivers, commission based tour guides, many gods, temples and shrines, smiling people, great food, hectic traffic roads, holy cows, Hindu language, handsome guys, the standard 3 questions and the need to haggle over everything. The country I am falling in love with…

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Emilio and Machus on

Hello we are happy to see that you resist the crazy India, we are going slow, it will take us at least 15 days to get to Nepal. Hope you have the energy to resist enough time. Remember slowly slowly you get very far.
Best wishes to both.
Emilio and MAchus
Besos a las dos.

Marijke Hovenier on

Hi ladies, amazing stories!! WAUW!!! Enjoy it, and if you are traveling to Nepal, please leave me a message! Marijke

Charon Duermeijer on

HI Angelique en Mira,
Geweldig om te lezen; brengt India memories weer op mijn netvlies! Kleuren, geuren, prachtige mensen en zwart roet tot diep in je neus :-)
Veel groetjes uit Amsterdam, Charon

Miranda & Sjoerd on

Na begin december niets meer gehoord van Angelique... Gaat alles nog wel goed?

joris on

Ik had dezelfde vraag als Sjoerd en Miranda, weet iemand hoe het gaat met Angelique?

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