"India was a constant assault on the senses. Unless I was way out in the country or hidden away in an ashram somewhere, I swam in a sea of people, animals, cars-trucks-bikes, smells (both pleasant and putrid), people dying on the streets, children working harder than most people ever have or ever will, and the loudest music blaring out of the worst speakers in the world. Hectic. Yet at the same time I couldn't turn a corner without seeing a beautiful shrine, an incredible temple, or at least a picture of one of the many Hindu gods and goddessses. It got under my skin. I began to realize that just being in India was the intense spiritual practice I had been looking for."
Dharma Punx - Noah Levine
As I said in the prologue, this was a remarkable journey in many ways and a very successful one at that. I tried various new things on this trip and they all worked out fine. First of all, this was an individually organised trip. Earlier trips have always been in bigger groups but this time I had a travel agency organise a trip for which I had figured out the itinerary. This gave me the best of both worlds; the trouble-free fully planned journey (all hotels and transport was pre-arranged) and the relative freedom of travelling with just two persons. This is definitely something I will do again in the future (Laos perhaps?). A second novelty was travelling with Bart. Sure, we’d done some business travel together in the past (always having lots of fun), but you never know how things work out in a different setting. As far as I’m concerned they worked out very well. We were both flexible and challenging enough to make things work. Especially the second part of the journey, when we visited the Buddhist sites, was off the beaten track and quite serious stuff. Bart and I are both highly interested in Buddhism, especially the philosophical side, but we managed not to take it all too serious. We found that we could be fascinated by all we saw and experienced, but take it all with a healthy degree of common sense and sense of humour. I can’t imagine there being one half hour in which we didn’t joke about something.
The trip had two very clear segments. The first half focussed on the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi-Jaipur-Agra with its palaces and forts. This was where we visited the relatively rich cities and came across many tourists, even when tourism is down with 70% because of the recent bombings. This part also came with relatively much time in the cities and little time on the road. The second part, between Varanasi and Lucknow, was the so-called Buddhist circuit. We left Hinduism and Islam behind and delved deep into the historical sites of the life of the Buddha. For me somewhat of recently acquired dream come true (although I still need to figure out how to go to Lumbini). This second part was different in almost every aspect. Prosperous cities changed into the poorest regions in India (it was shocking to realise how enormous the contrast is when we arrived in Lucknow). For days we didn’t see any Western tourist, all foreigners we came across were Buddhist monks and Asian pilgrims. One week of long exhausting days of travel across bad roads and through thick fog. But it was very much worth it.
We tried to experience India in its many aspects as much as possible, eating local (vegetarian) food (including chai tea, sweets, Tibetan momo’s in Bodhgaya and chaat whenever it seemed safe) and adapting local habits (some of which we really have to get ourselves out of quickly). We saw the real India that many people don’t see and experienced the darker sides in the forms of corruption, profit seeking, hidden agendas and extreme poverty. We learned to get along with drivers that were each other’s opposites in every possible way, liking them both while having to deal with their oddities. And of course we learned to appreciate Indian movies and music.
India will never be my ultimate travel destination. It’s too crowded, too unhygienic (even after being ultra-careful I still got sick), I have problems trusting the people (which may well be as much my problem as theirs) and don’t find the average Indian (as if there was such a thing) all that friendly and sometimes even bluntly rude. But this probably comes down to cultural differences instead of real hostility. Still, taking all of the above into account, India is so diverse and has so much to offer in culture, landscape, cuisine and history that it’s hard not wanting to go there. Without a doubt this will not be my last trip there (I have a couple of places in mind that I would like to see, Sikkim and Rajasthan to name two). In the future, I will surely take the less likeable aspects of India for granted again …