The Taj Mahal

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My final stop in India, and I knew I had to see her most iconic monument, the Taj Mahal. Thanks to the Shiva festival going on in the whole country, it wasn’t easy. The bus I took to get there stopped 10 km outside the city and would go no further. The traffic ahead was too thick. The whole busload of people got off and started walking in the intense humid heat. I decided it wasn’t worth it and went to a restaurant across street to bide my time and weigh my options. I ended up finding the only vacant rickshaw that was willing to take me through the craziness to the city.

I found a hotel on a quiet street just 1 km from the Taj Mahal. An older rickshaw driver offered to take me around the city to see sites for a price that “I could decide later.” I knew this was a trap, but I had an amount in mind that I’d offer at the end and that I would not budge from. The plans got derailed when he stopped to pick up two Italian guys and a Japanese girl. We hit it off right away and had lunch together. They were going to the Taj at sunset and we made plans to rest at our hotels for a few hours and go together in the evening.

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They were a lot of fun. The boisterous Italian guys had me and the Japanese girl laughing the entire time. They joked with everyone. We hired a guide to take us around the Taj Mahal. He told us that the sacred number of the Taj is 22. There are 22 fountains in front of and on the sides of the Taj. There are 22 spires on the walls surrounding the grounds. Also, each minaret is leaning away from the main building at 5.5 degrees, all four adding up to the magic number… 22. The minarets were built leaning away because if one ever fell, it would fall away from the main structure leaving it untouched.DCIM101GOPROGOPR9131.

The Taj Mahal was a truly gorgeous site.  We went at sunset which was perfect because the crowd was thinning out and the orange and pink light gave the Taj Mahal an even more ethereal energy. The white marble makes the Taj look divine. I walked around the building barefoot, feeling the cool marble on my feet as I gazed up studying the geometry and unique architecture. As it was getting late the guards told us we couldn’t walk around to the other side. When they weren’t looking Alessandro and I ran away to the other side and lingered there taking photos and taking in the structure with our eyes until the guards came around and made us leave.

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After our Taj visit, we had dinner as a group. We were all craving Chicken Tikka Masala (my favorite dish) and we all got our wishes. We then made our way to a cinema to catch a Bollywood movie starring ….Kahn. Unfortunately, there were no subtitles for the 3-hour spectacle, but I was surprised by how much I understood based on visual cues and context alone. We got out at midnight, said our goodbyes and went to our respective hotels. My last day in India was an unforgettable one. Good company and an amazing visit to the Taj Mahal. I won’t soon forget it.

The next morning I caught a bus to Delhi, from where I got a flight to Mumbai, a flight to Abu Dhabi, and a flight to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where I spent the night. Then, the next morning I took another flight to Vitoria, where I was picked up by a special lady and driven to Vila Velha, where I currently find myself.

Laxman Jhula/Rishikesh

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Laxman Jhula, next to Rishikesh in Uttarakand. I happened to be there during a nationwide Shiva festival. There were droves of young men from neighboring villages and some from all corners of India crossing the bridge from Rishikesh to Laxman Jhula every minute. They all walked through the main street to a holy site a few kilometers downstream. They were almost all wearing orange shorts and shirts with images of Shiva. Some had big handheld decorations that they made to in honor of Shiva. While looking at the bridge every now and then I’d see one of those contraptions fall 60 feet to the Ganga (Ganges), and I was never sure if it was on purpose or because there were just so many people on the bridge. In Laxman, many men would stop and bath in the waters of the Ganga, some having plastic containers to take a bit of it with them.

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The town was much less touristy than I expected, probably due to the monsoon season. Throughout the main drag were cows walking everywhere, and when walking I had  to watch out for their excrement. The cows in India have these big almond eyes and long eyelashes. They are very pretty creatures.

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I stayed at an Ashram with a great view of the Ganga. I spent much of my time there taking Yoga classes, always with different instructors. For once in my life, the Yoga teachers were not westerners. Their teaching styles were different, more spiritual and less aerobic.

I learned some new meditation techniques. One class enphasized strong, focused breathing. After the session my right hand involuntarily curled up and was locked in that position for several minutes. The teacher said that it was because I had some trauma from childhood blocking the flow of energy through my body. Afterwards I felt very energized, yet calm and happy.

I became a regular at the Moonlight café. The food was great and the three young men running the place were very friendly. There I met Marc, Sabrine and Lamson. Marc and I would often play chess, Lamson and I would take turns playing his guitar and talking about our respective countries and past travels, and Sabrina and I had many a philosophical and spiritual conversation. I also met two nice Russian ladies with whom I practiced my Russian with. It was nice being a regular somewhere. After over 6 months of backpacking, I feel less of a need to see the sights and a stronger desire to stay put and get to know a place in-depth. After a week in Laxman Jhula, I went to my final destination in India, Agra to see the Taj Mahal…

Kasol & Manikaran

 

 

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I meant for Kasol to be a jumpoff point to other neighboring villages that I wanted to see, but fate was to be otherwise. My first night in town, I ate some chicken that gave me the stomach flu. I spent the next three days sick as a dog, my body weak, and my appetite very low. When I finally recovered, I spent two days relaxing in the town. The Parvati Valley is very narrow compared to the valley where Manali lies.  I felt I could have thrown a rock and touched the other side.

Kasol is nice, but just as the guidebook said, it’s overrun with Israelis. It seems odd to me that so many people choose the same country to travel to and most with the same idea; they go to India, stay in Israeli-friendly hotels, eat Israeli food and smoke charras. Some buy a Royal Enfield and road trip around the country. Many Enfields were for sale but all the signs were in Hebrew (and without a price… weird). Come to think of it, many of the signs in the whole town were in Hebrew.

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I went one afternoon to Manikaran, a town just a few kilometers upstream from Kasol. There I visited the Shiva temple that is a pilgrimage site for many young Sikh men. They drive in by twos on their motorbikes decorated with flags of all colors. The temple sits on a natural thermal hot springs source. You can go there and bath in the 100 degree plus water that is loaded with sulfur and other minerals. It’s supposed to be very good for your health. I didn’t bathe the first time I went, but I later returned with and Israeli and an American and we stayed for about an hour in the baths. I felt energized yet calm afterwards. I believe there is something to the healing properties of those thermal baths. I spent some time that day sitting by the river in Manikaran. As with many rivers in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, it was a raging, roaring river. I felt mesmerized watching the rushing, churning water run swiftly underneath my feet as I stood on the bridge. So much energy, so much power.

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Malana village

Not sure where I was going, I was on the bus on the way to Kasol in the Parvati Valley when I met two young ladies from Catalunya. They told me they were headed to a quiet, secluded town and I decided to head that way as well. To get there we shared a taxi to a path alongside the Parvati River and had to hike the rest of the way. The taxi ride was rough, more like 4 X 4ing up the rocky, unpaved road crossing small streams and loose rock. Eventually we made it to the beginning of the path that led up the mountain to the village. I had my full-sized backpack on, while the smart girls had just small day packs. We hiked up a steep rock and mud path for two hours, our breath heavy and sweat steadily drenching our shirts, before reaching Malana village.

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This wasn’t like other villages, Malana people have specific religious laws that they abide by. The majority of the villagers belong to high caste families, and no lower caste or non-hindus are allowed to touch them or their dwellings. There were only two guesthouses at the top of the village, and they had the only two restaurants in the entire village. One day we met a man from Delhi and he told us that the people of this village are believed to be the descendants of Alexander the Great. They avoid touching lower caste or non-hindus to keep themselves spiritually pure. He said that in the whole village, only two houses belonged to lower-caste families and that they had to do the dirty jobs of the whole village. He said it was so engrained in the Indian mind that even he can tell by someone’s mannerisms what caste they belong to. He told us that in spite of their high-caste status, most of the village boys never go to school, wasting their time in the charras (hashish) business rather than developing their minds.

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I only spent two days there, a lot of the time in the guesthouse on balcony eating, playing cards with the ladies and listening to music in my room. Given the laws they live by, one doesn’t just stroll around the village. Even if I did I couldn’t touch anything or else risk the government imposed fine for doing so. One day my friends and I took a hike higher up the mountain via an old goat path, but the heavy slope made any progress slow. We stopped under a tree to relax and enjoy the scenery of the opposite mountain face until lunchtime.

My take on this village: It was an interesting cultural experience. The people here did have a different appearance than other Indians of the region; lighter skin, a different facial structure and hazel eyes. I would agree that they could be descendants of Macedonians and Greeks that passed through the region a little over 2300 years ago. As for the caste system, quite frankly it’s bullshit that two lower-caste families have to do the dirty work of the entire village. Maybe I don’t know enough about the caste system in India, but to me it’s absurd that one is born into his/her caste with little chance of social progress except for the hope that good merit in this life might grant them a better lot in the next. To me this is an ugly little social/cultural box that the Indians keep themselves in.

When we were ready to go, we started the hike down the mountain to the other side to get a taxi. The way day was much less taxing, and we soon arrived, and got a taxi to Jeri where we went our separate ways.