Early on in our trip, in the British-influenced hill town of Shimla, a portly gentleman approached us in a market. His name was Sasson, and matching his oddly Israeli-inflected name, he spoke to us in Hebrew. Sasson promised to show us ‘the real India,’ which, he said, would not be found in the overtly touristy hub where we stood that day. What was ‘the real India’ we asked? Oh, he laughed. We’d have to see it to understand.
Though we didn’t take him up on the offer (which was slightly awkward since we ran into him twice more in Shimla), I’m quite sure now, having traveled through this country for the past seven weeks, we are indeed in the thick of The Real.
Forget the fact that we have started bobbing our heads like all Indians do, quickly and to the right, to say ‘yes.’ Forget that I’ve begun neglecting connecting verbs in my sentences – it makes for less work when shopkeepers or tuk-tuk drivers try to translate me (“How much this?” “When you open store?”) And even forget that, like true weiners, I’ve started peppering my speech with some great Indian expressions like “Full power” and “Everything possible,” both of which totally describe life here (they don’t tell you, though, that while everything is possible, it will take you four times as long as you’d planned).
India is so unimaginably big that there are, undoubtedly, countless real versions of it – each with its eccentricities, its own problems, its own splendor. In the Himalayas, especially away from the backpacker hives of Manali and Dharamsala, the real India was a quiet place, universes away from the complete clusterfuck that was Delhi, our landing pad. The gentle softspokenness of the largely Tibetan and Buddhist population we met there was honestly breathtaking, especially in the Spiti region (on the border of India and Tibet) where the hush was so palpable is almost felt like everyone was holding their breath. There life tended to revolve around the coming winter, like a non-violent version of “Game of Thrones.” In the few months of summer, these somehow-farmers worked hard to pack up enough stock to make it through the harsh, deep, snow-blanketed season.
The host of our guesthouse in Kaza, the capitol of Spiti, was 25. He took the job running the place to earn some money in the summer months to bring back to his wife and child, living in his village a few hours busride (or as he said, a day’s yak ride) away. He cooked us dinner and we laughed about Indian movie stars – who seemed as distant and foreign to him as they did to us. A trekker who spent all his time in the Indian Himalayas would come out with a completely different ‘real experience’ than one who spent all his time in, say, Punjab, the hugely influential region to which we descended from the mountains.
Punjab is the homestead of the Sikhs (meaning that when you picture an Indian with a beard and a turban, he is not necessarily a Hindu), and their Golden Temple is a ‘holy shit’ type of place. Let alone the fact that Sikhs carry daggers on their wastes, which I imagine is the same type of shock when people first visit Israel and see the bounty of soldiers and guns, the Temple is, in fact, totally golden, and set inside a huge pool of holy water, surrounded by massive white gates. You wash your feet before entering and leave your shoes, which can be tricky – the place is so big, you will likely forget which place you walked in.
Inside, set off from the calmness of the Temple and the pool, is a massive kitchen where everyday, thousands upon thousands of pilgrims eat for free, served by volunteers (who also cook the food, do the dishes, clean the dining hall and keep order). Tal and I ate dinner there, sitting on mats on the floor and marveling at how equalizing the whole thing was. We could’ve been sitting next to millionaires or paupers. We probably were.
But for dinner, and washing the dishes afterwards, none of that mattered. They were all there to worship, to stare at that beautiful golden thing in the middle of the water, and to, for a moment, feel some peace in a turbulent world.
From Punjab we took an overnight train to Jodhpur, the ‘Blue City’ of Rajasthan. Rajasthan is, literally, the land of kings or maharajas. The state, before India’s independence, was an almost feudal region of kings and their land, with lower and lower caste people filling out the lesser and lesser jobs. Jodhpur’s blue houses, or havellis, are built on top of each other like the world’s biggest, most psychedelic Lego project, and all painted blue, like the skin of several top deities in Hinduism. Plus, we were taught, the blue keeps away mosquitos (this is totally false). We’d arrived without a hostel booked, and we showed up in the town center before sunrise, disheveled and lost. Every guesthouse was closed, or full of sleeping staff. Finally, we found Dev’s Castle View. It’s owner, Amit, said he didn’t have any rooms free, but “you just have to see my rooftop.”
So Tal and I climbed four floors and watched the sun climb up over Mehrangarh, the city’s totally WTF-that-thing-is-gigantic fort, perched atop a vertical cliff in the middle of the city, and paint the buildings a fresh shade of morning blue. Amit smiled at us, knowing he’d saved our day. Sure, I found a different place to sleep soon (we stayed in a local family’s guest quarters, and LORD did they make great spicy chai), but Amit was truly our introduction to ‘the real Rajasthan.’ Confident in an ancient tradition of hospitality, smiling because he knew that, yes, his city was an awe-inspiring sight to behold. We made lots of friends in Jodhpur, and our days just slipped by, hanging out on rooftops, walking through maze-like streets and sipping the best tea yet.
My first Indian shave in Jodhpur, followed by my first Indian haircut (it's too hot here for hair):
In Bundi, a smaller city of Brahmin blue houses a few hours away, we’d booked a guesthouse boasting that it was ‘the cheapest in town.’ It was – less than $5 a night. What wasn’t advertised was that the guesthouse was run by the royal family of Bundi. Shivam, the family’s eldest son, welcomed us and quickly laid out what was going on: centuries ago (everything in Rajasthan starts with ‘centuries ago’) the king of Bundi had 3 sons, each of whom was given a large portion of the kingdom. Shivam’s ancestors, the Dugaris, were given land outside the city of Bundi, but a few centuries later were the only remaining of the three lineages and moved to Bundi, where they’ve lived – in a big, beautiful and well-gardened compound in the center of the city – ever since. A few years ago, noting that his family of four simply didn’t need all the space, he studied up by working at top hotels around the country and converted all the extra rooms into a guesthouse.
For tourists, this means that for just a few bucks, you get not only a clean, spacious room, but also a huge garden, a terrace, amazing food and – best of all, of course – to hang out with Shivam, his brother and crew of 20-something friends. Learning about Rajasthan and the country’s social stratus from a royal son was, naturally, extremely engaging. While he noted his luck and fortune in having been born into such predominance (literally every single person in Bundi knew his family, by name and face, and spoke highly of them), we spoke openly about how drastic and dismal the lower castes’ lot tends to be. Some ‘untouchables,’ the lowest class in India, take to pulling the hair off pigs in order to have some material with which to make goods. And, yes, we saw tons of hairless pigs around town. Would he change things? Sure, Shivam saw a need for education and awareness, but also believed firmly that to each and every job, there was a person to fill it.
And that’s the interesting paradox in ‘the real India.’ Everyone has their role. But, unlike in America or the West, where we’re taught to dream big, there isn’t a lot of push to pull yourself through the ranks here. Your reward, like in so many religions and cultures, comes in the next life. Maybe next time you won’t be expected, without option, to grow up to be a shit-shoveler or a pig-puller. Depends on how well you shovel shit this time around. It’s a system of self-fulfillment, but also one of control, and it’ll open your eyes wider than almost anything here in India.
We had an amazing time with Shivam and his family – including one day where he arranged for us to take a local bus to the village of Dugari (yes, his last name), or the spot of the family’s original plot of land. Turns out that land is fucking huge, includes a 1000 year old castle, a lake and a village full of people who basically live in the family’s property. That, my friends, is something you just don’t see in America. Dugari was, honestly, a lovely, clean village, lovelier and cleaner than most we’ve visited. Shivam’s family there were sweet – though they spoke no English whatsoever – and their castle, well, it was just one more holy shit moment, with walls painted (centuries ago) with the Hindu epic tale of the Ramayana. And, for the day, we were the royal guests.
The Dugari castle, overlooking the Dugari lake:
From Rajasthan, we slid down to Mumbai, a city of nearly 20 million people, where all the old world charm of that state faded into the colorful, fast-paced and energetic bustle of a major metropolitan titan. We loved Mumbai. It was sexy, it was big and we felt a jolt just being there – especially when we were able to connect to the small Jewish community there (JDC for the win) – and we’ll return with Tal’s parents in a few months. In Mumbai, the ‘real India’ was thriving on the beaches of Chowpatty at sunset; the pink-orange sunset glowing over this gargantuan city as people of all stripes came to enjoy. Mumbai is a tough city, but one where success can be colossal (we had our own taste when we were hired as extras for a Bollywood crime drama). It was the closest thing to our own countries that we’ve felt in this one.
A Mumbai sunset
For now, though, we’ve moved to a slower, more sedate spot. We’re in Gokarna, in the southern state of Karnataka. I’m typing this from an internet cafe, and we’re living in a bamboo hut so close to the waves that the sea is our natural alarm clock. So I think I’ll sign off for now and ride this feeling back to the beach. I’ll leave you with my favorite neon sign in Mumbai. Full power, my friends.