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  • Alison Merrill

India - It's Been Weird...


Sam and I in front of the Taj Mahal. We woke at 3:30 am to see it at sunrise! Picture: The infamous, Mooda.

Now when I say, India has been weird, I know people might think, “Oh no! What happened?” To start, we accidentally joined a yoga cult, one of us contracted “wild Indian fever” (the definition is not on google but it is what the Ayurveda doctor diagnosed), and we purchased our plane tickets and visas one-week before going so we had zero plans. Our adventure went to a whole new level of ridiculousness and spontaneity than all of the other countries we visited combined. Cheers to living life on the edge and leaving ourselves open to possibility!


With India being the birthplace of Buddhism and historically, an exotic land filled with spices and goods to the western world – it has always been a place of wonder and magic. For centuries, religious figures, pilgrims, backpackers, yogis, and spirituality seekers came, and still do, to experience the country’s power. Nowadays one hears stories of travelers getting sick, being scammed, and complaints of chaos and dirt while others claim to find themselves amidst the Holy Ganges or Himalayan Mountains. It appears visitors either love or hate India and for those reasons, Sam and I decided this was a place we wanted to see firsthand.


We flew from Nairobi, Kenya, stopped for a layover in the United Arab Emirates, and than landed in New Delhi.

For our two-weeks in India, we took a train from Delhi to Varanasi, then flew to Rishikesh.

Delhi


September 18th - September 21st, 2019


Sam and I came straight off the plane from Kenya and landed in New Delhi - India’s capital city. Aside from the people we met in our hostel and on one of our tours, we were the only westerners we saw in Delhi. We received many long and painfully awkward stares as we walked down the streets and were asked to join in for the occasional selfie.


Some of our highlights in Delhi were:


1. Visiting the Taj Mahal and getting an unplanned and semi-unwanted photoshoot with, Mooda: Mooda was our tour guide who was more interested in taking pictures of Sam, Matt (a friend we met traveling), and me, than telling us the history of the Taj. But, who doesn't love a good photoshoot?


2. Getting to see Agra Fort: This reminded Sam so much of the Kingdom of Dhorn in Game of Thrones. Every room was a comparison to a scene or character from the TV Show.


3. Old Delhi Street Food Tour – India is known for having amazing street food. The problem, foreigners usually get sick from it, cough cough, Delhi belly. Wanting to play it safe and still indulge, we opted to do a street food tour in Old Delhi through Airbnb Experiences. We enjoyed amazing food, new friends, a panoramic view of the Old Delhi’s Spice Market, and visited and participated in a Sikh and Jainism temple.


The first stop on our street food tour that was hosted by JD with Sam, Tarin, Matt, and I all trying the local samosa spot. Amazing! Photo: JD

Trying all kinds of curry on our street food tour! Photo: JD

One of the many photo ops during our day at the Taj Mahal. Typically, people take off their shoes when going into temples. Since so many people visit here, we got to wear stylish shoe covers. Photo: Mooda

Sam at his favorite Dhornish Castle (Aka Agra Fort)

When you just... can't help yourself. Namaste.

Varanasi


"Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together" - Mark Twain


September 22nd - September 25th, 2019


Varanasi (Benaras) is known as the holy city, believed to be where Buddha founded Buddhism as well as a place where Hindi people go to die and be cremated. Hindus believe that if they die in Varanasi, they will immediately go to heaven. On the streets, one can see bodies being carried to cremation where their ashes are then dumped into the Ganges River. For the people of India, Varanasi is extremely special and ninety percent of tourists are Indians.


Along with being the Holy City, Varanasi is also known for travelers to be the epitome of culture shock – think louder, crazier, and dirtier than anywhere else in India. When it comes to driving, there are no rules. Tuk-tuks which are half mopeds with open space cars, scooters, rickshaws, and bicycles crowd the streets. There is a never-ending sound of horns honking as vehicles rely on sound for passing, turning, or if there is a cow in the middle of the road. Cows roam the streets since they are holy and therefore, not eaten. Holy cow! Oh, and looking to cross the street? There’s no crosswalks or sidewalks so pedestrians must physically put their hands on vehicles to stop traffic. Along with the ashes of the dead being thrown in the Ganges, sewage flows into the river. Not to mention since the river is holy, people are constantly bathing in it. Needless to say, Varanasi has a lot going on.


Highlights of Varanasi:


1. Taking the Indian Railway: Sam and I rode first-class - the train ticket was only $26 and included 2 amazing meals & the best chai tea we ever had (and it came from a packet). We passed by modest villages, slums, green landscapes, and a lot of people, some of whom, were going to the bathroom on the train tracks.


2. The closing day ceremony on the Ganges: Every sunrise and sunset, there is an opening and closing day ceremony that honors the holy Ganges River. With music, flowers, and fire, this was truly special.


3. Walking tour of Varanasi with Prakash: To learn more about the city’s history.


4. Varanasi College Campus – Explored the campus temples, gardens, and cafes.


5. Me getting my past, present, and potential future read by an Indian Astrologist and Guru: He took my birthday, time of birth, and place I was born and gave me a reading of my personality and abilities. While some of the reading resonated, others were completely off. Maybe it was the fact that my birth time might have been wrong or I walked in on the Guru playing candy crush prior to our meeting, I decided to take his advice with a grain of salt.


A local ceremony in Varanasi with locals and Indian tourists honoring their ancestors. Photo: Sam

The closing day ceremony on the Ganges. This ceremony is performed from 7:00 - 8:00 pm every evening. Photo: Alison

A festival happening the first day we arrived. The streets were so crowded it took us 10 minutes to get through this alleyway! Photo: Sam

Because monsoon season just ended, the Ganges were overflowing into the streets. Photo: Sam

Rishikesh:


September 25th - October 1st


Known as “the yoga capital of the world”, Rishikesh is a pilgrimage city where many go to study yoga, meditation, and spirituality. Sam and I had high hopes for Rishikesh being two people who love yoga and wanting to explore meditation further. Rishikesh is also the city where the Beatles studied Transcendental Meditation and wrote a record number of songs for their White Album, Abbey Road, and a couple of others. So, along with being a yoga destination, it is also hippie central. Compared to Delhi and Varanasi, Rishikesh was a much-needed breath of fresh air – quieter, yogi food paradise, and more nature as it is surrounded by the Himalyas.


Highlights of Rishikesh:


1. Beatles Ashram – An abandoned ashram covered in graffiti art where the Beatles studied transcendental meditation.


2. Luka Bridge – the famous bridge that goes across the Ganges River.


3. Walk along the Ganges: The Holy River.


4. Staying at a Yoga and Meditation Ashram: For three nights we fully immersed ourselves in the Ashram life, studying yoga, meditation, chanting, and spirituality.


5. Moving into the Dewa Retreat - the nicest hotel we’ve stayed at on our trip. Thankfully in India, prices are cheap making this splurge affordable and watching Seasons 1 and 2 of Narcos on Netflix.

View from the Beatles Cafe overlooking the Ganges at sunset. Photo: Alison

Huts at the Beatles Ashram built for meditating in the jungle. Photo: Sam

Some artwork at the Beatles Ashram. The site is now abandoned and one could spend hours looking at all the graffiti art scattered throughout the grounds. Photo: Sam

Photo: Alison

All the Answers Are Within Us


Prior to Rishikesh, I knew I wanted to stay at an Ashram (a community for yoga & meditation that includes housing, classes, & food), but honestly, I had no idea what it entailed. Come to find out, it meant wearing all white, waking up at 5:00 am to meditate, singing, and participating in fire ceremonies. In between the meditating, chanting, and yoga, there were six hours of free time. When Sam asked the Guru what we were supposed to do during that, the guru smiled and responded, “Most students use it to reflect – journal, meditate, and chant.” Sam and I both looked at each other perplexed.

The Ashram experience was short-lived as Sam got sick with “Indian wild fever” and we ended up leaving. Sam and I checked into the Dewa Retreat Hotel where we spent the next 3-days helping him recover and watching Narcos on Netflix. He is much better now!

Despite the fact that the cult-like behavior of the Ashram was not for me, I will carry many of the lessons I learned. People often look to teachers, mentors, friends, and family members for advice. It is easier to ask someone else for answers than to truly dive into what is in our own heart. A part of me went to the Ashram looking for answers. I thought if I could find a good teacher, that would give me a sense of clarity and profoundness. In one of the yoga classes I took, the teacher encouraged us to press our forehead to the mat, massage our third eye, the seed of intuition against the floor. She explained, “know that all the answers are within you”. Before anyone thinks I went off to the deep end…what spoke to me is the importance of having a connection to our heart versus being in our heads and attached to our egos. If we are truly able to be connected to our heart, it will guide us to the answers we are trying to find.


San Francisco – A Strange Place


Upon checking into the Ashram, Sam and I met the Guru who we told we were from San Francisco. He said he’s gone many times, more specifically, Palo Alto, the tech capital of the world. He said they need him in Palo Alto because people have a huge disconnect between their brains and their hearts and how important it is to be in touch with both. He then started cracking up and saying in between laughs, “San Francisco… Strange place… Very strange!”


Highs, Lows, Best Bites, and Lessons Learned


Sam

The Beatles Ashram where they studied TM. The Ashram has since been abandoned and is now overrun by jungle. Still, there is a lot of magic to be found as it is covered with art, surrounded by jungle, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and located on the Ganges. Photo: Alison

Highs:


1. Experiencing the energy & vibrancy of India first hand. It is like nowhere else in the world.


2. Hanging and getting to know Salman (an awesome new friend from India) on the roof of our hostel.


3. Getting “Indian wild fever”. We checked into a hotel with 10/10 beautiful Himalayan views from our porch. We just watched Narcos, enjoyed the view, and ordered room service. It was great.


Low: Walking in Varanasi… so scary. Could slip-on cow poop, get attacked by stray dogs or cats, or get hit by any of the thousands of vehicles going in every direction.


Best bite: Post Taj Mahal Indian feast of the best butter chicken and palak paneer imaginable. My goodness.


Lesson learned: The world is less globalized then I thought. We never saw other tourists. It was also incredible how different India is then the US. A different world. Think cows running around pooping, everyone in bright colors with glitter on their forehead, & no burritos. The saying is, “the only rule in India, is there are no rules”


Alison:

Enjoying the view at sunset on top of the Spice Market in Old Delhi. The spices were so strong, we had to keep cloths over our mouths to prevent ourselves from inhaling too much or become victim to a coughing attack! Workers also live outside their shops here and monkeys climb all over the buildings and if you're not careful, will steal food, phones, and even clothes. Photo: Sam

Highs:


1. Seeing the Taj Mahal. It was crazy after hearing so much about it an seeing pictures to look at it through my own eyes.


2. Meditation at the yoga ashram. We woke up at 5:00 am (so early!) and were guided through a series. It felt pretty awesome to be in India and learning from a guru while meditating.


3. Once I knew Sam was better, enjoying our stay at the Dewa Retreat, binging on Narcos, and relaxing which we have not done all trip.


Low: Sam getting sick :(


Best bite: So many things! Chickpea Chana with fried dough – a spicy chickpea and vegetable stew that came with fried dough to dip into the chana.


Lesson Learned: Stay connected and trust my heart


With love,

Sam & Alison


Sam and I at our yoga ashram. Traditional clothing is all white clothing that is loose-fitting. Do we look like yogis, or a horror movie?




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