April 11, 2010
It has been nearly three weeks since I got back from India, and this is the third time that I have sat down to write a post about it. Both of my previous attempts ended up in the recycle bin (which is why I served up a quicky photos only post), but the time has come to figure out how to put it into words. As I try to express myself it all sounds so cliché. It is true though, India is not a place I will soon forget.
We arrived to Delhi at 11 pm on a weeknight and we were greeted by a crowded airport. We were shortchanged within the first ten minutes of getting there, putting us immediately on the alert. The air in Delhi was thick with exhaust fumes and dust. Considering the time of night we were surprised by how congested the roads were, but this was nothing compared to the congestion we would soon experience during the daytime. We shared the road with so many other cars, but just as many motorcycles, wagons pulled by buffalo and horses, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, and the occasional elephant. There were homeless sleeping on the sidewalks, men hanging around in front of closed businesses, and stray dogs everywhere we looked. I turned and looked at Becca and said, "We are in India."
Delhi had us on edge. So many people lied to us and tried to swindle us. Delhi was my least favorite stop, but there were some amazing moments. My favorite experience was walking in Gandhi's final footsteps at the Gandhi Smriti. We also took a cooking class while in Delhi, which turned out to not be up to the standards that we had hoped, both in quality of food and sanitary conditions. However, I did learn a few things worth sharing, which I will at some point (including a technique of preparing eggplant which should end my streak of hardly edible eggplant dishes).
We took a 2 hour train ride down to Agra for the day to see the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. The Taj exceeded the beauty you always read about and see in photographs, it really is a wonder!
Next stop, Corbett National Park, a tiger reserve in Northern India. We stayed inside the park in the Dhikala zone forest lodge. The lodge was off the grid, running on solar panels during the day, with only spotty electricity at night. We lost electricity just as the sun was going down, so after dinner they equipped us with matches and two candles. We were then left alone in the darkness with the sounds of the wilderness outside, with not much to do but take cold showers by candlelight, and turn in early. We could hear the humming of generators outside, but these were only used for the electrified fences around the camp to keep the tigers out.
We had two days of sightseeing safaris in different areas of the park. The tigers decided not to show themselves to us, but there was no shortage of amazing wildlife. We saw elephants, monkeys, crocodiles, wild boars, jackals, turtles, several breeds of deer, and tons of exotic birds.
Heading out of Corbett we took a second class sleeper train overnight back to Delhi, and in the morning flew out to Bagdogra airport, in the far northeast. From there we took a jeep 3 hours up into the Himalayan Mountains to Darjeeling (at 7500 feet). Darjeeling has front row views of the third highest peak in the world, Mount Kanchenjunga. The population there is mostly Nepali, but there is also a strong Tibetan presence--it was definitely the most culturally diverse location that we visited. Darjeeling really had a small town feel, and for the first time in India we felt very safe and not afraid to roam around on foot. In fact, we walked everywhere, uphill and downhill, which are the only two options there. The roads are steep and zigzag through town, and there are long steep staircases that serve as alleys between the roads. We never fully adjusted to the change in altitude, so during the long walks upward we would get winded quicker than we are used to and have to take breaks.
Tea is the main export in Darjeeling. Tea bushes grew everywhere on the rolling hillsides. We visited the Happy Valley Tea Estate and had a tour of the plant and learned how tea is processed.
Darjeeling is one of the stops on the historic Himalayan Railway featuring toy trains. It would have been an eight hour ride up which is why we opted for the three hour jeep ride into town, but we did take the train down one morning to the town of Ghum just to experience the toy train. We also spent one afternoon rafting on the River Teesta. A few of the pictures from the train and the rafting trip are in my previous post.
One of my favorite experiences in India was learning how to make Tibetan dumplings ("momos") at Hot Stimulating Cafe. I will be posting all about this experience including the recipe in my next post.
Darjeeling was my favorite, and I could have spent many more than four days there. The people were friendly, the tea was delicious, and we made acquaintances with several other travelers. The shopping there was better than the other places, with lots of small shops to choose from with fixed rate prices (which was a relief after some unsuccessful haggling in Delhi). We bought Tibetan handicrafts, pashminas, tea, and jewelry to bring home. Of all of the places that I visited in India, Darjeeling is the only place I could ever see myself returning to. But of course there are still many other places in India, and in the world, that I would like to visit.
As a most excellent way to end my journey I turned 27 just as I was boarding the 16 hour flight home. I traveled back in time through 11.5 time zones, meaning for me, March 22, 2010 was 35.5 hours long. The longest day of my life made for one memorable birthday.
Thanks for sticking with me through that long-winded post. We will be getting back to food around here, and soon!