Riding a rickshaw through the streets of Old Delhi

There is no better way of seeing and understanding India’s capital than by taking a ride on back a rickshaw through the streets of Old Delhi. Built in 1639 as the Mughal capital Shahjahanabad ( شاه جهان آباد) the intensely crowded and dilapidated streets of Old Delhi remain the heart and soul of the city and are a sight to see.  For the narrow, shadowy streets of Old Delhi offer a glimpse into what life was once like and still is for millions of Indians.

On back of a rickshaw, be prepared to be thrust into humanity and taken away by all one’s senses. The sights, smells, sounds, feel and taste of the place is enough to put any reasonable person over the edge. It is an overwhelming experience especially in the midst of Delhi’s infamous summer heat with highs reaching the unbearable 120 degrees. Yet it is an experience of a lifetime that will shed light onto this vibrant country filled with complexity and contradictions in every aspect of life.

Here are the photos taken from the bumpy ride on back of a rickshaw through the narrow streets of Old Delhi ( I was unable to stop so all these photos were taken in motion).  I left the ones of my driver in this set so you can see how incredibly narrow these streets are to manage on a rickshaw. Sadly, most rickshaw drivers barely make ends meet and oftentimes live on the street next to their rickshaw fighting to survive. Another tragedy of Old Delhi is the state of the buildings. Many are falling apart and recently one collapsed to the ground in the middle of the night while 35 people slept right through their death. It is one of many sad realities of life on the streets of India. 

Climbing on board. Note I am wearing a scarf over my head to keep the intense sun off.

Climbing on board. Note I am wearing a scarf over my head to keep the intense sun off.

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India in Instagram

The last three days in Delhi have been a complete whirlwind. We have been on the move visiting our NGO partners for Social Good Moms to learn more about their work on the ground. Being in Delhi is like being at the forefront of humanity. The buzz of mass civilization frenzies around you and engulfs all your senses. There is so much going on at any one moment that it is hard not to blink your eyes in amazement. To make the experience of being here even more surreal, the temperature has been dizzyingly high averaging around 114 degrees F/46C. In a crowded city of over 20 million people, the heat just adds to the intensity of the place.

Our first day was spent resting and recovering after our long journey to India. It took us over 30 hours to finally arrive in Delhi and the time change (Delhi is 11.5 hours ahead of Minneapolis time) has been hard to adjust to. Day two was spent visiting a small Delhi-based NGO called Protsahan that provides a unique approach to education for street children in the urban slums by using the arts. Day three was spent visiting India-based NGO Pratham who also works in education for underpriviledged children in the urban slums of India. Both visits were amazing and we learned a lot about how these NGOs are working with these children to give them a future.

I will go into the specific details of each visit and what we learned in a future post. However, in the meantime I wanted to share a small selection of instagram photos I’ve taken over the past three days in India to give you a feel for our trip so far.

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India SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY

The adventure of getting there is half the fun

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Sometimes getting there is half the fun. Traveling half way across the world is no easy feat and as long as you maintain a positive attitude and sense of humor than it can actually be quite an adventure.

I began my journey to India at nine am on Sunday, May 19th and four flights and 36 hours later, I finally arrived at my final destination, Delhi. As always, there were lots of bumps along the way, a few which began before I even left. The physical journey was long and arduous, yet the mental journey has literally just begun.

As much as I love to travel, leaving is always the hardest thing. The days before a big trip are always jam-packed with preparation as I run around in a mad dash trying to get everything done. I’m always stressed and always feel mixed emotions about leaving. A lot of excitement, anticipation tagged along with that not so pleasant anxiety I feel about leaving the kids. I know it is the mother in me. But leaving home for a long trip always unsettles my nerves. As soon as I’m on the plane, I’m fine. It is just that terrible goodbye and a little bit of worry.

Sunday morning was no different than before. After a stressful couple of days, I woke up with those usual pretravel jitters. By nine am the car was loaded with my suitcase and we were off to the airport. As we neared the terminal, my six-year-old daughter began to cry. “Mama, why do you have to go to India” she asked between sobs. My little girl always has a way of getting right inside my heart. I felt my stomach tighten. “Because I’m trying to save the world” I answered steadily. “But why do you have to do it?” she questioned. And for a moment I was speechless and stunned by her question, coming from a kindergartener. “Because someone has to do it” I responded.

Two and a half years ago a life-changing trip to Nepal and India opened my mind. I have traveled all my life but for some reason this trip in particular was like nowhere else I’d been. I had never seen poverty like I did in India and Nepal. I had just finished reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s “Half the Sky” which educated me on so many issues about women and poverty that I never understood. The book has a strong message that anyone can do something to change the world. No matter how big or small, you can make a difference. This belief prompted me to start my blog and use my voice as a way to share my experiences around the world and educate others on what is happening sometimes behind the scenes.

Last fall I began writing as a member of the Global Team of 200, a group of mom bloggers trying to change the world by using their voice to educate others on maternal and infant health, education, children, nutrition, human trafficking, water and sanitation and other important issues that relate to poverty. The more I learned about these issues, the more passionate I’ve become about trying to help make the world a better place.

I’ve learned that you cannot travel with a blind eye. You must always have a “third-eye” so you can see everything – good and bad. So many times people choose to ignore the bad because they don’t want to see it. The world will not change and become a better place for all if we continue to ignore fixable problems. As a global citizen, it is our duty to help the millions of voiceless people who are suffering silently.

As I embarck on this journey, I intend to do whatever I can to have an open-mind and take everything in. I am sure it will be yet another life-changing, eye-opening experience. I look forward to sharing my journey with you all.

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Stay tuned….
We have started a tumblr blog at to follow our trip. You can also follow us along on Twitter at hashtag #SocialGoodMomsIndia.

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Taj Mahal India

India Bound

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. -Mahatma Gandhi 

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Building global connections both online and offline is the cornerstone of Mom Bloggers for Social Goodsays founder Jennifer James who heads up one of the world’s largest social good sites for moms who blog.

On Sunday, I am honored to be traveling to India along with Jennifer James, founder of Mom Bloggers for Social Good, to meet face to face with some of our partners as well as meet fellow Social Good Moms who live in India. Our time in India will be spent learning about the issues we cover: Maternal and newborn health, food and water poverty, sanitation issues, and education for women and girls.

It’s going to be an amazing time, full of lots of insight into the advocacy work we do as well as the culture, people and situation in India. I have visited India briefly in 2010 when I was en route to Nepal and found India to be one of the most dynamic places I’ve ever been. It will be truly fascinating to see India once again through a different set of eyes and mindset.  I will have my “third-eye” waiting and ready to capture and soak in as much knowledge as I can.

During our stay, I’ll be sharing my journey via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and of course on my blog.  I hope you follow along on this journey! It is bound to be eye-opening!

I would like to thank Sevenly for being a trip sponsor. They are an amazing organization. Check our their website here to learn more about the fabulous things they do.

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It is a huge honor for me to be invited to go on this social good trip as I’m certain I will learn so much more about the work I’m so passionately advocating for.  I am so excited to share what I learn with you. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I don’t think we can see the world without learning about the issues each place we visit face. It is up to us to not only be a good tourist, but to be a good citizen and help change the world we live in to make it a better place for all. Thanks for your support!

To Follow Our Journey From May 20 – 24, 2013.  Hashtag: #SocialGoodMomsIndia

To learn more about Mom Blogger’s for Social Good, check out this interview recently published in Forbes about Jennifer’s work. “Mom Bloggers Build a Network for Activism and Change.” 

Stay tuned…

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India’s quest to become polio free has arrived

As many of you know, In January I attended the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life Summit along with 45 other fellow Americans, who will be working hard to raise awareness and funding to provide vaccines to impoverished nations around the world. 

Since January, I have been steadily following all news vaccine-related and have been blown away by India’s quest to become a polio free nation.  In one of the most populous nations in the world that has many places that are extremely difficult to reach, the massive effort to vaccinate India’s children and wipe the deadly polio virus away, has been a hair-raising feat.

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Delhi Belly

We arrived at the airport in Delhi, utterly exhausted, around 8:30 PM.  The supposedly two hour drive from Agra to Delhi, wound up taking over five long, brutal hours.  I wasn’t surprised.  Nothing surprised me anymore about India. 

We paid our driver, and then entered the fortress-like Delhi airport, guarded at all entrances by machine-gun clod soldiers.  Security was extremely tight in India; like nothing I’d ever seen or experienced before.  You aren’t even allowed to enter through the airport doors without a valid airplane ticket, boarding pass and passport.  A printed out receipt from American Airlines didn’t cut it.  So we had to go to another window and get the right documents to be let inside.

We waited in the long line to check in, went through security which involved full-body pat downs and careful inspection of our hand bags.  Then we sighed in relief.  Finally we were here, safe and sound, and ravishingly hungry after that scrawny, malnourished chicken curry and questionable chicken sandwich.  I found the first recognizable and somewhat trustworthy fast food chain I could:  Dominos Pizza.  It’s pretty hard to mess that up, right?  It’s just pizza.  My dad opted to eat at the American Airlines sponsored lounge and despite my protests, ordered a green salad.  I told him over and over again that it was a mistake.  We made it 17 days without eating a salad or any kind of uncooked vegetable, so why was he taking the chance now?  I don’t know if it was exhaustion, hunger, lack of vitamins or just not using his head but all my warnings landed on deaf ears.  He didn’t listen and greedily consumed not one but two fresh, green salads with relish and delight.  It was eleven pm and we still had two more hours until our flight left. So next we moved on to our long awaited glass of red wine. 

We grumpily boarded the plane a little after midnight, feeling filthy and beyond tired.  As soon as the plane took off, I was out cold and so was my dad.  Fifteen hours later, the plane began the descent into overcast skies at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  Home, almost, at last!  I was overjoyed!

We gathered our stuff and headed to the business lounge, one of my dad’s perks with being a frequent flier, and we were delighted to find out that they had freshly remodeled showers!  Wow….talk about heaven!  The showers were the nicest, cleanest example of plumbing I’d seen in weeks and I took my time indulging. 

Not long after the shower, however, it hit me.  The infamous, terrifyingly, much-dreaded Delhi Belly!  I was practically on the floor, hunched over and in tears, in the wonderfully clean, modern American bathroom.  And all I could do was thank god it didn’t happen in Delhi!  With no remotely clean or public bathrooms available, it would have been beyond my worst nightmare and humiliation possible.  Unfortunately getting stomach ailments is all too common in India and Nepal.  The food is not prepared to the same levels of standards and hygiene as found in the States.  There were many unfortunate souls on the Annapurna Trek who succumbed to a miserably bad case of the runs.  I can’t even imagine how terrible that would have been!  You definitely lose all your modesty that is for sure.

Fortunately, I was prepared.  I had a stash of antibiotics in my bag which I took immediately and was cured within 24 hours.  My father, however, wasn’t so lucky.  He did not go to the Travel Clinic before our departure and relied mostly on me for advice.  He has traveled the world, way more than me, and has never been sick.  This time he was not so lucky.  After arriving home in Arizona, he awoke to find himself sopping wet and delirious with fever.  My Mom frantically grabbed the one thermometer in the house and took his temperature.  It was 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit, an incredibly dangerously high fever.  She grabbed her purse, pulled him out of bed and rushed him to the local emergency room.  Then his Delhi belly began and lasted for four long, miserable weeks.  The fever ebbed and flowed, his stomach killed, and he lost a lot of weight (which he didn’t need to lose!).  Test after test was run to no avail.  Finally after a month of the runs, it magically stopped.  The next day he received a call from the doctor.  One of many tests came back yet this one was positive.  Apparently he had some sort of nasty parasite living inside his intestines but luckily it must have passed.  His lesson was learned the hard way:  No more green salads in third-world countries!

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Illegally Blond

We awoke early Monday morning, our last full day of the trip, to the usual sounds of life in Delhi:  non-stop honking, car wheel screeching, shouting, yelling, and godknowswhat noises.  I peered out the window of our hotel room and was not surprised to see a fire already burning.  Yep.  They were still there.  The tarp community who live on the dirty, loud street right across from the hotel.  The sky was the same gray-blue color.  The thin blanket had not lifted.  I had a feeling that it never lifts.

We had a brief breakfast of rolls, jam, fruit juice and tea on the rooftop terrace which affords a 360 degree view of smog-infested Delhi.  The orange-pink sun was beginning to rise, slowly, hesitantly above the great masses of people and buildings which make up this immense, chaotic city. 

“Come on, hurry up, Dad!” I told him impatiently.  Our driver for the day was waiting downstairs and we had to try to get out of Delhi as soon as possible, if that is even possible.   We had big plans for our last day of driving to Agra, the home of one of the most beloved, sought after sites in the world:  The Taj Mahal.  I couldn’t wait to go.  I’d always dreamed of seeing it in person and here was our chance.  Our flight didn’t leave from Delhi until one in the morning so we had the entire day.  We were told that Agra is about 124 miles south of Delhi so if traffic is alright, the drive usually takes around 2-3 hours, or 4 hours tops.  That was doable in one day, right, I reassured myself.  The flight attendants do it, or at least that is what they told me on the flight over from Chicago.  It is easy.  A no-brainer. We had all day, right.  No worries.

We set off at ten past eight into the throngs of traffic and all the craziness that driving in India has to offer.  We had an excellent driver, I reminded myself.  One of the best assured the hotel.  I marveled once again at how on earth people get around in such madness.  Cars, trucks, motorbikes, people, buses were all clogging the road well past capacity.  I sat back in my vinyl seat with my seatbelt buckled tightly and watched the world go by.  Entire families on motorbikes, with the sari-wearing women sitting precariously sideways on the bike, while holding her infant to her chest.  Twenty or more people crammed in like sardines into those funny looking three-wheeled carts that acted as a sort of taxi system throughout India.  People stacked inside, on top of and holding on to the sides, of over-packed ancient looking, pollution-infested buses.   Cows and water buffalos lounging in the middle or side of the street, munching on garbage.  Camels pulling huge wagons stacked high and bursting out the sides with some kind of enormous leaves.  Then, the people….EVERYWHERE.  A sea of black hair and brightly colored saris in glimmering gold, magnetic red, and pumpkin-colored orange.  The problem was how did it all work?  How were not hundreds of people killed daily on these roads?  I clung tightly to the door handle at every turn, worried we were about to take some unknown Indian out.  It was frightening as hell.  No wonder you must have a driver in India!  You would have to be completely insane to drive in such a place!   

The driver informed us that there were three things that made a good driver in India: 

  1.  The Horn:  Is used non-stop the entire way.  Talk about a major headache. 
  2. The Lights:  Used to flash people to warn them to get the “f” out of the way!
  3. Luck:  Probably the most important thing of all in a city of over 14 million in which traffic has no rhyme or reason whatsoever.

After an hour or so of this crazy, chaotic driving I casually asked the driver when we would get out of the city and on the highway.  He looked at me with a bemused look on his face and said, “What do you mean, Miss?  This is the highway”.  I nearly died.  How silly I felt.  I had been picturing a nice, relaxing peaceful drive into the countryside, where I could see the real India.   That was when I corrected myself.  This is the real India. 

It took me awhile to calm down and try to enjoy the ride as best as I could.  The problem was I had to use the restroom which although is a basic human need, there seems to be a real problem in India and Nepal in finding any public toilets.  I told the driver that I needed to find a bathroom and asked how far.  He said sincerely, “Things are different here in India.  It will take me at least another hour to find a place that is acceptable to you.  Can you wait that long”?  I had no choice.  I had to wait.  I secretly cursed myself for drinking so much coffee and juice before I left.

Uncomfortable, I sat back and tried once again to relax but this time with an incredibly full bladder.  Given the high volume of traffic on the road and the constant stopping and waiting due to congestion, I noticed that there was not a lot of space between other vehicles.  If my window was down, I could touch the person next to me.  This lack of personal space was something I was not accustomed to.  But even worse than my violation of space were the hard, unblinking stares that invaded the depths of my soul.  I tried to figure out why they were staring.  Not a few but all of them.  Children, Men, Women, Young, Old, them all.  Why were they staring at us?  Then, like a sudden surprise, I realized they weren’t staring at the driver or my dad.  They were staring at ME.  Ah-Ha….I gasped.  It was my hair!  My long, blond hair.  They were staring at me with those huge, wide-eye looks of shock and surprise.  Perhaps they had never seen a woman with blond hair.  I found that hard to believe.  Don’t they have TV?  Aren’t there tourists here? 

At first, I didn’t mind the looks and stares.  I thought it was funny.  But then after hour upon hour of countless, endless stares, it started to truly bother me.  I felt like a leper.  A pariah.  A freak.  It was a terrible feeling.  Like you were walking down the street naked.  And worse of all, I could not escape.  I was trapped in that car for hours, faced with those endless, wide-eyed stares.  I felt so uncomfortable I wanted to cry.  So I finally showed my pillow over my head and laid back, trying to hid my blond locks.  But it didn’t work.  My dad said that they still stared, non-stop, for hours.

The attention reminded me of many years ago, when I was a shy, honey-blond, blue-eyed six year old girl on her first trip to rural Mexico.  As soon as I got out of the car and stepped foot inside the village, I was surrounded and swarmed by screaming Mexican children, chasing me to touch my “angelic” hair.  I was horrified and hid behind my father’s legs.  The same experience happened again fifteen years later in Italy when my blond-haired friend and I were literally chased down the street in Bari by a horde of young Italian men, laughing and cat-calling us the entire way.  Not a pleasant feeling, that is for sure.  I was surprised to get this type of behavior in India because it never once happened in Nepal.  I felt trapped inside the confines of the car and hated every minute of it. 

The hour passed slowly and I thought my bladder was going to burst.  After much begging, the driver finally brought us into a small, decrepit looking gas station.  There were no other cars there.  I got out, and immediately felt the hard, cold stares watching me move.  Where is the bathroom? I asked desperately, almost in tears.  Around back, they answered.  Here is the key.

I went around the back of the station, unlocked the dirty door and there was the familiar squat toilet surrounded by flies and stink.  So, if this was an acceptable bathroom, I thought, what do the unacceptable ones look like?  I didn’t want to know.

I got back into the car and realized it was already eleven o’clock.  We had been driving for almost three hours and apparently we weren’t even close yet.  I sure hoped the Taj Mahal was worth it!  Finally, when all patience was ending and our tummies were growling, we arrived in Agra.  It wasn’t at all what I expected.  I was thinking it would be a lovely, historical city.  Perhaps a bit more peaceful than Delhi.  What I should have known by now is that there is no peace in Indian cities.  To my disappointment Agra was just another dirty, chaotic, overpopulated, annoying big town. 

Before meeting our guide for the highly anticipated, long awaited tour of the Taj Mahal, our driver brought us to the restaurant where we would be having lunch.  I should have known that it wouldn’t be good by the parking lot.  There were no cars there.  Just an old, rusty bus full of tourists remained.   The driver dropped us off and told us to take an hour for lunch.  Meanwhile the bus packed with tourists left.  We walked in to the restaurant and saw large table after table, empty.  The lights were off.  It was dark inside.  There were four bored waiters standing over in the corner.  They told us to sit anywhere we want and handed us a menu.  I didn’t like the look of the place and was highly skeptical about the cleanliness of the food.  But there was nowhere else to eat and we were starving.

I ordered the good old standby, Chicken Curry with rice and my father took an unwise chance and ordered a chicken sandwich.  The food came twenty minutes later, still not another soul in the restaurant.  I scooped up a big heaping of rice and put it on my place.  Famished, I dug my spoon into the chicken curry and nearly passed out.  The chicken leg was about the size of my pinky!  Scrawny, wispy and in my book, inedible.  Oh lord, I though.  But I was so hungry.  I decided to leave the pencil-thin, undernourished chicken leg in the bowl and opted to just pour the curry over my rice.  It was greasy and spicy.  I prayed I wouldn’t get sick.  If I did, where on earth would I ever find a bathroom!  Now was not the time to get the infamous Delhi belly, that’s for sure.

After lunch, we met our tour guide, a local Indian-certified tourist guide from Agra who wore a long, white linen shirt and pants, an odd choice given the heat and dirt.  His hair was slicked back with oil and he had an air of superiority in him.  His English was good but at times I didn’t understand him and he seemed rushed, always looking at his watch. 

We entered the gardens of the Taj Mahal, which were littered with trash and had few flowers.  There were people everywhere but not the people I expected to find.  Instead of the loads of camera-clad tourists, they were Indians themselves.  Families, couples, friends, you name it.  Surprised, I asked the guide “where are all the tourists”?  He told me it was a national holiday in India and most Indians chose to spend it together, sightseeing.  The Taj Mahal is just as important to Indians as it is to us.  Perhaps even more important. 

To my dismay, I wasn’t able to blend in or escape the continual stares at my blond hair.  I put on a baseball cap and pulled my hair back in a ponytail, but it didn’t stop the looks.  Oh well.  When in Rome, right?  I decided it was time to just deal with it. 

Was it worth it?  All the swarms of people, crowds, continual stares, crappy food, disgusting toilets, and four hour car ride to Agra?  Yes.  Yes it was.  When I first saw the Taj Mahal, I was taken aback by it’s majestic beauty.  It took my breath away.  To see such an incredibly, spectacular sparkling white work of art in all the dirtiness of India was a surprise in itself.  The sheer beauty of the Taj Mahal did not disappoint.  It was simply incredible and made my heart melt.  We snapped some pictures and walked around, admiring the inside and out.  We learned about the romantic history of the building and how it took over twenty years and thousands of workers and artisans to build.  It was amazing, especially given the time period in which it was built:  The early 1600’s.  It was a major feat of architecture and remains one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen. 

So, yes it was worth it.  However, the ride back was hell.  Five, long, miserable, stare-filled hours of agony.  We didn’t reach the Delhi airport until 8:30 PM and were dirty, tired, stressed out and burned out.  But, we were back in modernity once again and clean bathrooms and real food (or so we thought).  It was time for some wine and celebration before boarding our 15-hour flight home to the States.  It was quite a day, that’s for sure.  One I’ll never forget.

The drive from hell….scenes from the road:

Invasion of space:

A family of four:

Finally, the breathtaking reward:

Was it worth 9 hours driving in chaos?  YES!  Perhaps the journey there was the thing I’ll never forget, however:

The queue to get inside:  Notice the lack of blondes!

Our last glance before we left:

Our guide Hari in Nepal told us a funny acronym:

NEPAL = Never-Ending Peace and Love

INDIA = I Never Do it Again

But I know I will!

India TRAVEL BY REGION

The Thin Blanket

As we descended through the wispy, powdery grayish white clouds, I was confused.  It was raining.  Or at least I thought it was raining.  But it had to be!  Why else was everything so dark like dawn.  It was eleven o’clock in the morning so the darkish gray-blue sky did not coincide with the time.  Yet there was not a drop of rain to be seen sliding down the thick plane windows nor was it predicted to rain.  Instead, to my shock and disgust I realized what I was seeing was something today different.  It was pollution.  Not just any pollution, but serious, climate-changing pollution.  The stuff I’ve read about in the paper, in books,  and online.  Like Al Gore’s recent documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.   

As we descended I saw with horror the thin blanket of smog which smothered, choked and strangled the city of Delhi like a silent murderer.   I was speechless.  I had never seen anything like it before.  Not even the low-hanging smog on LA could compare to the blanket of death in Delhi.  A city of 14 million people and rising, Delhi is jammed packed into an urban area with a total density of 9,340 people per square kilometer.  Unfortunately, the urban population continues to rise, mainly due to the migration of rural Indians to the capital in search of a better life.  It is projected that the population of Delhi will increase 40% by 2021.  This will create even more stress on an already stressed city.  There will be a tremendous need for more and better infrastructure, pollution control, sanitation, living quarters and jobs.  After spending a few days in Delhi already, all I can imagine is that if the projections are true, it will be complete madness!   I have never been to a city so chaotic, over-populated and extreme as Delhi.  Every square foot of the city was occupied by rows and rows of people, cows, cars, buses, three-wheeled carts, motorbikes, vendors, stores, buildings, and garbage.  Garbage piled high, everywhere, dumped on the street, into the river and alongside buildings.  For someone accustomed to a clean, green, beautiful city, I was completely shocked by the sanitation situation in India.  Yet no one else seemed to notice or care.  It is a fact of life.  Garbage cans and trucks simply don’t exist in India.  Or at least not enough of them!

I marveled at the fact that I was truly inside the heart and soul of a rapidly, developing country, the roaring, Asian Tiger, in all her glory, where things seem to change or not change in the blink of an eye.  It was startling and left me thinking for a long time after about the impacts this rapid fire development will have on India and the world as time goes by. 

As we drove to our hotel, once again, I was flabbergasted by the intense, chaotic madness of getting around in India.  There were overstuffed cars, packed like sardines buses, crazy three-wheeled carts jam-packed with god knows how many people, motorbikes carrying entire families, and animals in the middle of the street (mainly cows which are sacred in India….how ironic!).  It amazed me that anyone can get anywhere in India.  There is no rhyme or reason to the movement of traffic.  No real stoplight or signs at the intersections.  Just honking horns screaming like a crying child desperately wanting to be heard, and near-fatal crashes miraculously being somehow avoided.  The people, too, were everywhere.  Everywhere you looked, there were people.  It felt claustrophobic in a sense and made me realize how small my life really is in the spectrum of things.  I’m just one person out of billions.

Finally we arrived at our hotel, exhausted with the stressful drive yet thankful we had a good driver (essential in India) who didn’t take anyone out along the way.  I certainly didn’t want that on my conscience!  I’d never sleep again!

We were back to the same hotel we stayed at the first night we arrived in India before heading off to Nepal for our trek.  It still felt luxurious especially after everything we’d seen and experienced for the last two weeks.  Yet the sharp contrast between haves and have-nots burned in my soul and made me feel sad. 

We ate once again on the roof-top deck of our hotel, a delicious, scrupulous meal of Chicken Tika with fresh raita sauce, my favorite, and naan bread.  We sipped wine, ate well and slept in our warm and cozy beds.  Yet just outside my window lived the homeless, the many people not as fortunate as us who were living on the street in tents.  I felt so incredibly sad and guilty that all I wanted to do was leave.  I tossed and turned for hours that night, wondering why things are the way they are, and feeling blessed that I was able to see the things I’ve seen.  For this is reality for most of the world.  This is life.

The brand new, state-of-the-art airport in Delhi , where you see turbaned security guards cruising around on Segways (modernity juxtaposed to poverty:

 

Late afternoon in Delhi—it is not raining.  It is pollution:

Impossible to ever forget….those who are not so fortunate (street view of homeless outside our hotel):

Sunrise and breakfast on rooftop deck.  Another day with the thin blanket:

Sunrise in Delhi….where is the sun?

Yet, the Tiger continues to roar…….

India TRAVEL BY REGION

India and Nepal: Culture Shock upon Arrival

Our hotel was found using Trip Advisor and was a four-star.  It was a lovely place with lots of gorgeous, authentic Hindu artwork and a fabulous rooftop restaurant deck where guests were served an enormous breakfast and delicious hot chicken tikka at night.  For a moment, you forgot that just outside your hotel window was how the “older half” live (or quite frankly, most of the world).  Directly outside the lovely confines of our hotel, the contrast of luxury and poverty in India was shocking.   A tent (plastic tarp) community lived right out on the side of the road, within the heaps of dirt and garbage and surrounded by the continual loud, polluting traffic that whizzed by 24/7.  Of course there was no running water and no electricity.  The people could be seen cooking up their meals over an open fire of burning trash.  Sadly, this is reality in India, along with the continual garbage thrown EVERYWHERE alongside the roads, dirt sidewalks and “highways”.   I found it also quite sad to see all the livestock, mainly cows who are sacred in India, living right in the middle of the roads eating off the endless piles of garbage. 

Reality awaits right out our hotel window…….

India:

Worth a Read……

White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga

“Midnight’s Children”  by Salman Rushdie

“Untouchable” by Mulk Raj Anand

 

 IS IT SAFE? 

Although Nepal is on the US Government Travel Warning list, that did not stop me from going.   There have been some Maoist uprising in the past that have literally shut down Kathmandu, however, things have settled down recently (especially since the end of Nepal’s 10-year People’s War in 2008) and the Nepali government is hugely promoting foreign visitors (2011 is the being advertised as The Year of Nepal).  I was a little nervous about the safety situation so I did my homework and talked to a lot of other people who have visited Nepal.  I heard over and over again that it was fine and remembered that I have probably been to less safe places before (such as interior Mexico, Peru and South Africa). While there, we heard over and over again the common acronym for Nepal = Never Ending Peace and Love.  I never felt threatened and in fact felt very comfortable with the kind, docile Nepali people.

In my opinion, probably the scariest thing about Nepal was the transportation by road and by air.  The roads are poorly maintained and the driving is insane, just like India.  Given Nepal’s mountainous geography, only small (and very old) planes can be flown into many of the airports such as Lukla in Everest region and Jomson near the Annapurna.  Most of the flying is down through the valleys and weather can change quickly.  Lukla has experienced the highest share of crashes and is considered one of the most dangerous airports in Nepal, however, it is the easiest, fastest way of getting to Everest.   So you have to often balance safety versus the odds.  Driving to some of these remote places is probably much more dangerous than flying, that is for sure.

I have flown a lot in my life, however, I still am fearful of small planes and had worried a lot about the internal flights.  The flight at the end of our trek from Jomson to Pokhara was NUTS but I survived.  We flew at low altitudes (@ 10,000 feet) on an ancient looking plane, through the valley of the mountains which rose over 15,000 feet above our plane.  The entire time I held on tight to my Buddhist prayer beads that I got along the trek in Manang from a 95-year-old monk, and somehow tried to feel safe.  Twenty-five minutes later, after feeling like I was in some kind of Indiana Jones movie, we landed safely in Pokhara and it felt nice to have my feet on the ground again, safe and sound.

Here are some pictures of the crazy flight:

Inside our 14 person plane.  It didn’t feel safe yet the flight was surprisingly smooth.  We flew along the riverbed between the 25,000 foot mountains at an altitude of only 10,000 feet (barely over the trees!).  We even had our own flight attendant.

Not the best picture, but you get the point!  View directly outside plane window….the mountains are a little too close for comfort!

The Trials and Tribulations of Transportation in a Third-World Country

Rajan, the owner of Earthbound Expeditions (who organized our trek) met us at the hotel in Kathmandu upon arrival and laid down the details of our trek.   He was amazingly thorough and very personable, giving us a customized trip and top-notch service.  The drive from Kathmandu to the Besi Sahar, the start of the Annapurna trek is “supposed” to take 4-5 hours.   We were scheduled to take the $5 per person tourist bus the next day.   However, Rajan mentioned, kind-of as an afterthought, the other more expensive option.  For $125, we could hire a private driver to bring us, our guide and our porter to the start of the trek in a Land Rover.  For Americans, this was a no-brainer yet for most Nepali people $125 was not an option given that the average salary is less than $2 a day.  For them $125 is a lot of money.

We opted for the driver and this ended up being a very good idea and worth every penny.  Having never been to Nepal, we had no idea the dire, dangerous situation of the roads or the incredible amount of traffic.  Leaving Kathmandu, there is only one highway out and it has only two lines, one per direction.  Thus the drive is notorious for huge traffic jams, which we instantly experienced.  We moved out of Kathmandu at a snail’s pace, being surrounded by three-wheeled carts, motorbikes carrying entire families, buses (with people riding on the top, out the sides and holding on the back), bicycles and rickshaws.  Plus there was the usual amount of cows living in the streets and other livestock.

Apparently it was a holiday week in Nepal and everyone was returning home on the one and only route to their villages.  As we drove out of the congested, polluted city, the traffic somehow managed to go, but in no order whatsoever.  We arrived outside of the city and into the immense, lovely green Kathmandu Valley and finally got a visual of our situation.  One look at the rows and rows of traffic dwindling down the curvy, windy roads of the valley made me realize that this was going to be yet another long day (it was only our third day out of the States and the first two were spent flying).  Instead of 4-5 hours, it ended up being 9 long hours of hell.  The traffic was jammed up all the way the mountain on each side and the drivers had to do their best to move around all the old, broken down cars and trucks on the narrow, mountainous road.  Feeling quite restless, at one point, my father, our guide and I all got out of the car and actually walked a few hours.  It was faster than driving however the pollution was intense and the road conditions were dangerous.  I actually twisted my ankle an hour into the walk (what bad luck at the start of a 100-mile hike) and it swelled madly.  I kept walking since there was nowhere else to go.  (Thankfully the swelling stopped and I was fully recovered in two days!  I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to come all this way and have to go back!).

When we finally arrived in Besi Sari, we were utterly exhausted, dehydrated and famished.  We were also behind a day in trekking that would have to be made up.  Here are some great photos of that daunting drive from hell:

Leaving Kathmandu:

One of my favorite site:  The eye-catching,crazily decorated trucks.  Not only were they colorful and decorated to the max, their horns were hilarious sounding and used often.

A common site:  How people get from place to place in Nepal when cars are expensive.  Any way works…even on top of the bus!

This is why it takes so long.  What happens, as often does, when a truck or car breaks down and you have to try to pass?  A huge traffic jam.

The road conditions were pitiful.  At points the road was washed away by landslides or there were big huge potholes.  No wonder all the breakdowns!

When all else fails, walk.

Or ride…..

Yet we were rewarded by all the lovely views of the countryside and what was to come.

And, the beautiful smiles of the children dressed in their school uniforms, waving at us joyfully and yelling out “namaste”.

 

Yet, the first sight of the mighty Himalayas in the distance instantly calmed us and made our frustrations disappear. 

Finally, we were in the countryside and traffic moved!

And we drove alongside villagers going about their daily business.

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