August 30, 2008

Semester at Sea - India

I was most nervous about going to India. I had heard a lot of things about it and most of those things involved vomit.

For those of you who don't know me, puking is my biggest fear in life. I don't know why but the thought of it paralyzes me. A friend of mine from a previous voyage said the stench of certain places was so strong she threw up. To prevent that, I bought a chapstick, like Burt's Bees, really pepperminty, and rubbed it under my nose every time I went out. Additionally, we were warned by EVERYONE about the horrors of Dehli Belly. It's like Montazuma's Revenge only a lot more brutal. We were told the situation there was so bad that we should not eat off of plates that still appeared wet, we had to keep our mouths closed when we were in the shower and we were instructed to brush our teeth with bottled water.

I was prepared. Before I boarded the ship, I bought supplies, mostly for this India visit. I had packs of granola bars and other snacks as well as my own bottled water. My plan was not to eat anything whiile I was there. I also practically bathed myself in hand sanitizer. I know, I'm crazy. But it worked. I never puked.

What did happen was a bloody nose. We docked in Chennai (Madras), a heavily populated city in Southern India. All of India is heavily populated. As a result, it is heavily polluted. My nose was bloody the entire time we were there. I'll take that over puke any day.

My amazing roommates and I were becoming attached to the hip at this point and ventured out on our first afternoon. I have never in my life seen so many people (minus Carnival) but this wasn't a special event. It was just every day life. The ship frequently docks in that port and despite the massive debt that trip put me in, I was still considered wealthy to the throngs of poor we had to weave through in order to explore the city.

I'd been in crowds before but I had never been around so many people who were in absolute poverty. And this was the first time in all my travels where the beggars touched you and thrust their children at you. One old woman with an infant took our hands and helped us across the street. It was all very overwhelming.

Taking the cab rides were scary. We rode rickshaws, which are essentially motorcycles with a fancy board balanced on the back as a "seat" and it's given a cover to appear more car-like. They are notoriously unsafe but Kaycee, Lauren and I managed to squeeze into one. Of course, the drivers wouldn't take anyone where they wanted to go. They were all promised commissions if we were taken to the most upscale shops and bought things. I understand that we seemed wealthy in comparison to the poverty surrounding us, but there is also considerable wealth in India - they stay off the streets. By no means could we afford a single item in the places they took us to. We argued with our cab driver as he continued to promise to take us to our destination only to take us to another shop. After a while, we just gave up and went back to the ship.

I was lucky enough to visit the Taj Mahal. I flew Indian Airlines to New Delhi and then remember having to take a train for about 6 hours into the night to wherever we were going. People slept side by side on the grounds near the tracks. We all collected the train food we didn't finish and left it on a bench - handing out money or food to any one person could have started fights.

We visited so many places in India but I remember the travelling most. We truly did see cows roam free along the street, many camels too. But the camels were used as transport. We saw men with bears on the side of the street. They had a rope around the bear and when they pulled on the rope it would make them sort of smile and dance. We found out that these people trap bears and use them as a side show on the streets, demanding money if people take a picture. They fasten ropes around the bears mouths and when they pull on it they writhe in excrutiating pain, but to people who don't know any better it looks like smiling and dancing. It was heartbreaking.

I also rode an elephant. Their treatment was questionable and I think my friends and I were on a young elephant. It was so hot and the sun was really strong and I was so sad for these elephants I couldn't enjoy my time with them.

I went to my first temple and saw my first snake charmer. And then, I saw the Taj Mahal. It is so beautiful. It is so perfect that my mind couldn't wrap itself around the reality of it and the whole time I was there it looked like a painting or a photoshopped backdrop. I had no idea what the Taj Mahal was but I was expecting the inside to be almost like a home. It wasn't. It houses the tombs of the Emperor and his wife. He had it built as a declaration of his love. There is nothing else inside. Cameras are not allowed so unfortunately, I can't show you. It was smaller than I thought but absolutely amazing.

As we left the Taj Mahal we had to walk through a large park to get to the entrance. There were tons of kids begging for money and trying to sell us junk. There were cops patrolling the grounds and they would hit the kids they caught trying to sell to us.

The whole visit was amazing. Definitely full of contrasts. Unremarkable beauty next to filth and squalor; it was a place you either love or hate. I ended up loving it. I was mentally exhausted by the end of our visit but I think it was a turning point. It marked the halfway point of our voyage and it is probably where most of us felt that change - the spark that our travels meant more than flagging points on a map.

For me, I passed a test. We stayed at a great hotel that was considered to of very high standards. We ate there one night - an amazing feast of Indian food and I decided to partake. I was getting sick of my granola bars. Indian food remains one of my favorites and authentic Indian food cannot be beat.

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