Chapter 7: Masala Magic
December 11, 2018 (Kathmandu-New Delhi)
Delhi, Delhi, please don’t upset my belly.
Have you ever waited in a line to go through immigration for forty-five minutes, only to find out that it was the wrong line?
India E-Visa Fact: You’ll need to acquire an E-Visa before you enter India. It is recommended to apply at least three to five days before your flight. There are many links that may offer cheaper options, but you should only ever apply for a visa from the embassy/governments secure site. If you’re thinking of traveling to India anytime soon, here is the correct link to obtain your E-Visa: https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/index.html
Have you ever booked a hotel close to the airport for your 21-hour layover, only to find out it isn’t near the airport?
After the e-visa ordeal was over, it was finally time to claim our baggage…except Ryley’s luggage was nowhere to be found. Turns out that ten other people experienced the same problem. All of their bags had been sent straight to Dehradun, even though they had a full day layover.
Jet Airways, you will be getting a “no stars” review from us for sure.
It took nearly thirty minutes to get to our hotel, when it was only supposed to take ten. Airport Hotel Green Heights (insert link) was a cold showered and disconcerting experience. A scowling man checked us in, only after barking at us for our passports. His tone was beyond demeaning, and continued to add to our growing frustration from the events that took place earlier in the day.
Maybe a hot shower would make things better.
No hot water.
As we were on our way out of the hotel, we asked the rude man where the closest place was to eat. He said there weren’t any options close by, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to texting on his phone. After wandering around for twenty minutes, we came back only to find out our hotel serves food.
Deep breaths. In and out. Count to ten.
An over-priced meal later, and we were fed. It is safe to say that we did not end up touring around Delhi, and stayed in our windowless box for the remainder of the evening.
Our experience in India couldn’t go anywhere but up.
December 12, 2018 (Delhi-Dehradun-Rishikesh )
A wave of relief engulfed us as we saw Ryley’s bag chug down the conveyor belt.
Off to the yoga capital we went, in a shared taxi with a Russian traveler named Andre. His enthusiasm and love for Rishikesh was contagious. The closer we got the more excited we became. Cows of all sizes roamed freely, alongside pigs and stray dogs.
India Fact: With Hinduism being India’s majority religion, the slaughter, sale, and consumption of beef has become a contentious issue ever since the BJP came into power in 2014. Cows are considered sacred and venture through the streets, digging through garbage and begging for treats from restaurant owners. People will frequently stop to pet them, bless them, or feed them. We had seen cows in the streets of Nepal, but nothing like Rishikesh. They were everywhere!
Our taxi dropped us off at The Holiday Home between two skinny buildings, hidden off of the busy strip. The Holiday Home was reasonably priced AND had hot water. The owner, Raj, welcomed us like we were old friends and made us feel right at home.
We wandered down the narrow pathways to access the main strip. Foreign faces, dread locks, and loose clothing dominated the scene .Friendly smiles greeted us at a restaurant that we would become very familiar with. Honey lemon ginger tea, chana masala, plain thali, and aloo gobi would become staples in our vegetarian diet. For nearly three weeks, we decided to boycott meat.
Rishikesh Fact: the sale of meat, eggs, fish, and alcohol are illegal in Rishikesh.
Indian food made vegetarianism fun and flavourful. We tried so many dishes over the course of our stay in Rishikesh, and enjoyed every single one of them. Chapatti and masala tea were a mandatory part of most meals.
After touring around the area, we decided that this would be a place to gain a deeper understanding for our personal spiritual journeys. A peaceful and positive energy loomed around Rishikesh. We were ready to open our minds and dive deep into India.
December 13, 2018
We couldn’t go to Rishikesh and not visit an ashram.
An ashram is commonly known as a place of spiritual retreat or a Hindu monastery. Many people practice yoga at ashrams, which are guided by a guru (spiritual teacher). The yoga studio we practice at in Edmonton, Prana Yoga Studio, has a great relationship wit Yogirishi Vishvektu at Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram. We decided it would be a great place to start, as this would be our first ashram experience. 5:00 A.M. greeted us with a chilly hug, but we pushed through and made our way to the morning meditation. Afterwards we took part in the fire puja ceremony, and then ate breakfast in silence in the eating hall.
Context: Ryley and I have been practicing yoga for a little over two years now. From our understanding, it is supposed to be a non-judgemental and inclusive experience. No matter what your background, age, or experience level, there is always an open invitation to practicing yoga.
Exclusivity coated the air, and made us feel quite uncomfortable at times. There were rules to everything, which we were not familiar with. Individuals staying at the ashram, or who were completing Yoga Teacher Training had a more in-depth understanding of the routine. This was evident. We went in with very open minds, but it was difficult to feel as though this was a place we would ever want to practice yoga again.
Breakfast sent us over the edge. The hall was set up with small wooden leg tables, which you had to pull towards your lap to eat upon. Everyone sat facing each other. No obvious signs stated where you should sit, so I sat down in an area that looked pleasant enough. As soon as my butt cheeks touched the ground, a woman who looked “in charge” pointed to a very small sign above my head and indignantly stated that the area was reserved for vegans and people with dietary restrictions. Ok. No problem. Everyone who was sitting near me just stared as though I should already know this rule. For a place that is supposed to be inclusive, and spiritually freeing…it felt as though I had to tip toe, hold my breath, and not blink too hard in case I might offend someone.
Later that day at lunch (at our new favourite spot), a man with warm brown skin and a periwinkle headscarf strolled in. His eyes and smile met everyone sitting in the restaurant, and positivity oozed out of his pores. Just looking at him made both Ryley and I smile. This man was a mystery of happiness, and I felt as though I needed to hug him (I didn’t though, but would later find out that he probably would have accepted it with open arms). His name was Piyush, and I’m not sure how the conversation started, but it was so full of enthusiasm that I didn’t want it to end. Of course the topic of yoga came up, only to find out that he was a yoga teacher. He invited us to his home where he held drop-in morning classes. You know when you meet someone, but you feel like you’ve known them your whole life? He felt like a long lost uncle, who we wanted to have coffee with, better yet practice yoga with. As we left the restaurant, he shook both our hands with both of his hands. The purity of his kindness was palpable. For every experience that makes you feel a little funky, there is always one to offset it.
December 14, 2018
“Jai guru deva Om. Nothing’s gonna change my world.”
Name that famous group.
Did you know that The Beatles studied at an Ashram in Rishikesh in 1968? It’s now known as The Beatles Ashram, but is also known as Chaurasi Kutia. The entrance fee was quite steep at 600 INR/person ($11.14 CAD), but it was worth every penny. During the 1960s and 70s it was the training place for students of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He was famous for coming up with the Transcendental Meditation technique (silent mantra meditation for inner wellness). The Beatles studied meditation there in 1968, which gained international attention. 14 whole acres dedicated to meditation huts, and lecture halls; a small self-sufficient town.
Except now it’s a ghost town.
Imagine 14 acres of dilapidated buildings, once filled with students. Little meditation huts, with cracked windows and crumbly staircases. An eerie feeling filled the air, almost as if there were spirits that had forgotten to leave. The buildings are quite luxurious, and the ashram is anything but humble. It seemed as though it was a place that catered to creature comforts. For a place so large, and so famous, it was only used for a mere decade, and was reclaimed by the government in the 1990s.
An unavoidable blast to the past occurred as we looked at pictures in a small gallery of The Beatle’s visit. So many thoughts soared through our minds as we tried to imagine and recreate what might have happened in this abandoned piece of architectural art.
A full day spent pondering and walking the grounds of where one of the most famous bands spent a part of their spiritual journey only 50 years ago.
Chai tea in one hand, and a samosa wrapped in newspaper in the other; a sunset on the steps near the Gange River to complete a historically rich day full of adventure.
December 15, 2018
I hope you didn’t forget about our new friend Piyush, because we sure didn’t.
We woke up early to head to his house, which was also an ashram, for an Akhanda practice.
As soon as we arrived, we were greeted with barks and snuffles. Five different colors of paws ached to greet whoever was on the other side of the door. Piyush had warned us that he and his wife rescued dogs. Ha! He had no idea that he was talking to a crazy dog lady at the time.
Why yoga with Piyush was incredible:
He asked us if we had any pre-existing injuries so he could modify his class for us.
We were the only one’s, besides his wife Maria, in the class. Intimate setting for the win.
He adjusted us, so we could better understand what real alignment felt like. He also highlighted our strengths, and defined areas for improvement.
Two of their dogs (17 year old Emma – his wife’s dog, and a giant rescue) cuddled with Ryley and I during savasana (final meditation).
Maria made us coffee after class, and we sat on their veranda and belly-laughed while talking about life and all of its craziness.
Thank you Piyush for embodying love, kindness, and inclusivity.
December 16, 2018
I didn’t know what it really meant, until I saw it for myself. National geographic, BBC, or any other documentary organization can only convey the visual representation…but lacks the feeling, the smell, the heart ache, and the realizations.
Plastic tarps covered in dust and dirt. Children gathered in large groups, poking through heaps of garbage scattered in absolute disarray. Cows, pigs, dogs and people all competing within one environment to find bits and scraps of whatever could be eaten, sold, or used. Shoeless kids wandered with bandages to cover wounds that would never see antiseptic. Decomposing animal bodies and raw sewage sat stagnant all over the area.
This was the slums.
Up until this point we had stayed protected in the bubble of Rishikesh. Where foreigners come to rejuvenate, find themselves, and practice yoga. Only a few kilometers outside of the spiritual haven was where another reality existed; true suffering lives here.
It became very important to us to be able to observe from a multitude of different lenses. We needed to see the whole picture, instead of the wanderlust picture that us first world folk paint for ourselves. The twelve children that ran up to us wanted to shake our hands so badly, and ask us questions. We never could have imagined what we were going to experience, or how we would handle it. My maternal instincts automatically engaged, and I wanted to help. I wanted to do something…anything. So we bought enough chapattis to feed the group, and a few bottles of water. Then reality sank in: we had no control over the situation. This is their reality, and all we could do is be aware. It didn’t matter how many chapattis we bought, or how many bottles of water we gave the children…they would still be hungry tomorrow.
A poignant cloud hung over us for the rest of our last day in Rishikesh. We reflected deeply about all of the first world problems we encounter on a day-to-day basis, and how menial they are in the grand scheme of the rest of the world.
You don’t know until you know. But once you know, there is no excuse to not consider carefully before you complain about something.
December 17-18, 2018 (Rishikesh – Agra)
Traveling by night bus can be hit or miss, but it’s ALWAYS a hit when you can eat matar paneer to go.
Ryley’s hunting and gathering skills were becoming impeccable. Food would randomly appear, even before I started getting hungry. I think he learned fairly quickly that hangry Liv becomes a small demon; therefore keeping the team fed kept spirits high and Satan where he belongs.
Ten hours later and we arrived in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. It was 6:00 AM, so we decided to drop our bags off at our hostel and partake in the sunrise tour.
Taj Mahal Tip: if you’re visiting India, you’d be silly to miss out on seeing the Taj Mahal. BUT be careful. Different people will tell you that you have to lock up your bags, but this is not true. Don’t leave your bag anywhere with anyone unfamiliar, even if they say it’s a “rule”. As well, tour guides will bombard you with “the best price” for their tour. I would recommend hiring a guide, but hunt around and negotiate before you make a decision. It helps having a guide explain the historic context, and creates a much more memorable experience.
After hard negotiations, we found a guide who agreed to take us on a one-hour tour for $6.00 CAD (300 INR).
Walking through the gates my breath caught in my chest, and a giant wave of emotion passed over me. There it was in all of its glory: The Taj Mahal. I made a mental check mark on my bucket list.
As the sun rose, the gems in the Taj sparkled and cast a pink hue over the white marble. I could not wipe the smile off of my face. We hadn’t even had a chance to brush our teeth yet, but who cared. Our guide, Muhammad, had been a guide for forty years. He’d been there since the days of when you could enter the Taj Mahal for free. His knowledge and poise was a joy to partake in as he confidently guided us through the grounds. Never in my life did I think I would be able to enjoy such an incredible sight alongside one of my favourite people.
We quickly realized that Agra was purely a tourist city. From getting hustled by a rickshaw driver, to almost getting hustled buying a bus ticket; we knew we didn’t want to spend another moment or dollar there. You only really need five hours in the city: see the Taj Mahal and maybe the Agra Fort, and you’re good to go.
After buying our bus tickets to Jaipur, we were given instructions to meet at the place we bought our tickets to board our bus. Unfortunately, the man we bought the tickets from “forgot” to tell us that we were supposed to meet at a different area to catch our bus. Thankfully, our tuk tuk driver was able to drop us off in the correct location. This wasn’t the first time he had seen something like this happen.
And off to Jaipur we went.
December 18-20, 2018 (Agra – Jaipur)
Welcome to “The Pink City”.
Here is Jaipur in a nutshell:
Rented a motorbike from a man who didn’t trust us. He asked Ryley if he had his motorcycle license and we confidently backed up his Class 5 as motorcycle worthy.
Ate delicious street chole bhature.
Visited the Jal Mahal, Amer Fort, and another small fort where they used to store artillery to stock the Amer Fort.
Paid foreign prices for food (restaurants were a tourist trap)
Stalled in the middle of a busy street, directly in front of a giant bus. Got honked at, while I waved my hands apologizing. Good fun.
Ryley did a phenomenal job of navigating traffic. He took to the unique style of Indian driving standards very quickly.
Stayed in a heritage boutique hostel/hotel that was 150 years old, with a terrace where giant Langur monkeys accumulated throughout the day.
Got into three accidents in one day in a tuk tuk (he ran into a car, backed into a car, and hit a concrete wall in a traffic circle all within ten minutes of each other)….I only wish I was making this up.
Everyone squawked about how great Jaipur is, but unfortunately it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong, the Jal Mahal, and Amer Fort were beautiful, but I’m glad we only spent two days in the city. Food is over priced, and if you’re not local street food can be difficult to access.
December 20-23, 2018 (Jaipur – Pushkar)
Another local bus later, and we were in a new city.
For $8.00 CAD/night we stayed at Atithi Guest House. A narrow white building comprised of three levels, with a rooftop that overlooked the city (and a great spot to practice yoga in the morning). We were walking distance to the humming centre of the city, which homed a variety of eclectic shops and eateries.
Scoping out dinner was our first adventure of the evening, and we ended up striking gold. Delicious thali, curries, and masala graced the menu for much more reasonable prices than what we had just experienced in Jaipur.
Towards the end of our first meal the owner stopped by and raised his eyebrows at us, asking if we wanted to try the “special lassi”, because it would make you feel “very very nice”.
What is lassi: it’s a popular sweet yogurt based drink that originated in India, but is also popular in Nepal!
We weren’t sure what other substances might be infused into this “special” savoury elixir, but we were curious to find out. The owner suggested we come by the next evening to enjoy a glass.
After our intriguing encounter, we explored the streets, passing by vendors, foreigners with dreadlocks, and sacred pools of water. Pushkar felt different. A ripple of mysteriousness undulated around us, and we were looking forward to unravelling it.
The next afternoon, Ryley went on a filming expedition while I stayed back and worked on my blog. He came back with fire in his eyes, a bracelet, and a huge smile. He’d spent his afternoon at a drum lesson, and got invited to an evening Hindu ceremony. Our night was just about to begin. We headed to our favourite eating spot, and AFTER DOING EXTENSIVE RESEARCH, indulged in “special lassi” also known as “bhang lassi”.
I’ll let you Google that one on your own, and you can piece the rest of it together for yourself. It is safe to stay that we stayed indoors for the rest of the evening.
Waking up and still feeling the after effects from the night before, we decided to make the most of our last day in Pushkar. But first dosa (the equivalent of an Indian crepe, eaten with rice and lentils) for breakfast. Off to a literal hole in the wall, that maybe had enough room for six people to participate in a traditional drumming lesson. Then down to the temple to give our offerings at the Brahma Temple.
Pushkar Fact: Pushkar is one of six places in India that has a temple dedicated to the Hindu creator Brahma. According to the Hindu faith, this particular temple’s location is believed to have been chosen by Brahma himself. In other words, it’s an extremely sacred place.
We had no idea what was going on, but we decided to join in. Different vendors were accepting donations for offerings, and a place to store your shoes (you cannot wear shoes inside of the temple). We trundled along the old cobble stone bare foot, until we reached the holy house. Of course we weren’t sure of what we were doing, so we just followed what everyone else was doing. I placed tilaka on our foreheads; we stayed quiet, and began placing offerings at the base of the statues of the Gods. It was a mindful experience dedicated to being a part of a ritual without any sort of judgements attached.
The Pushkar journey continued, but wouldn’t have been complete without running into a cow with a fifth leg growing out of its back. I cannot make this stuff up.
Our time spent in this magical place came to an end as quickly as it began. It would have been easy to continue to languish in the spiritual wonders of this incredible city, but it was time to move again.
December 23-26, 2018 (Pushkar – Jodhpur)
Unaware of how busy the holiday season would be in India, we intelligently booked only one night in Jodhpur. The owner of Namaste Caffe was able to extend our room one more night, but we would not have a room on Christmas unless someone cancelled. Ryley and I explored all of the options in the surrounding area, but most rooms were sold out on Christmas Day or an ungodly price that did not agree with our frugal budget.
Well this was awkward, but not totally. The roof top restaurant had flat lounging mattresses for patrons, and we jokingly suggested that we could sleep there if the owner didn’t mind. He looked at us, and without hesitation agreed that we should sleep there, and that he would host us for free. Talk about hospitality, even if it was in a restaurant, it was something, and it was FREE.
Christmas Eve consisted of visiting the Mehrangarh Fort and Museum, where we fought with the burly ticket distributor over receiving student discounts. We won.
Mehrangarh Fort Fact: The Mehrangarh Fort is one of the largest forts in India, and was built in the 15th century.
This was our fourth fort, and it amazed me how each fort seemed to be grander than the last. The museum was full of ancient artefacts made of gold, ivory, and encrusted with precious gemstones. Our evening consisted of dancing to a little Ottmar Liebert, and drinking peppermint tea in bed until 2:30 a.m. Because WHY NOT.
Waking up on Christmas morning was unique, because it was our first Christmas away from our families…but we had each other and were planning to embrace the day. We treated ourselves to a giant breakfast on the rooftop patio, and listened to Burl Ives while we took in the view of the fort in the distance. Our bags moved from our cozy room, into the corner of the cozy restaurant. The only task we committed ourselves to that day was scoping out a bottle of red wine (because red wine and Christmas go together hand in hand…well at least in my world).
Not only were we able to acquire red wine, but Ryley snagged a few bottles of whiskey as well. It’s not common to see women purchasing alcohol in Rajasthan, so it was fair that I received quite a few inquiring looks. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the 1964 claymation version, was in order. We sipped our wine out of water glasses, and snuggled in our make shift set up.
Since it was Christmas we wanted to share a nice meal together, because we’d been eating under budget up until this point. Next door to where we were staying was a more “upscale” rooftop restaurant, so we indulged. Tea lights surrounded the perimeter of the roof, and cozy blankets were offered to fight the chill while we dined.
Side note: winter in India is COLD. The evenings are especially brisk, and bundling up is necessary.
It was humbling to not have a proper room to go back to. It juxtaposed the North American projection of what Christmas is supposed to look or feel like. It is safe to say, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it any other way with anyone else.
December 26-30, 2018 (Jodhpur – Jaisalmer)
A jolty jeep ride into a village that only became acquainted with electricity in the last two years. Red dust coated all visible surfaces, and the sun was beginning to peak over the horizon. Our driver was the son of our desert guide, and came from a long line of desert men. Camping and trekking through the Thar Desert on the back of a camel seemed like a great way to complete our month long endeavour in India. I could hear the high-pitched bleating of baby goats, and immediately started to squeal. Our driver took a very fresh kid out of its living quarters and let her roam around. I had never held a baby goat until that day, and didn’t realize how soft and docile they are in your arms. They’re so cuddly, and relax immediately when you hold them close to your body. In the distance, I could make out a small man walking in stride along three sand-moose. Little did we know the impact this man would have on our lives.
His name is Abhey. Mahogany sun weathered skin covered his entire body. Quick moving, yet obviously arthritic hands unsaddled the desert giants, as he spoke to them in soft tones. He had been a camel guide for over thirty years, and knew the desert better than any friend he’d ever had. After loading the camels, we took off into the desert. The Thar Desert is nothing like the Sahara. The dunes are much smaller, there is a variety of wild vegetation and animals. Whilst bobbling back and forth on top of the desert giants, Abhey would break into a lively song in Hindi. He’d clap his hands, and belt out folk songs. Stopping for lunch meant unsaddling the camels, and unpacking our supplies. Our desert Father would cook us a full vegetarian lunch, accompanied by chapattis and chai tea. The first night we met up with another tour, which hosted a Canadian couple and an Australian and Senegalese couple who lived in Bali. You never know who the heck you’re going to run into while trekking through the desert. Sharing dinner with our new friends was amazing, as we were able to share a myriad of perspectives in regards to our travel and life experiences. Our campsite was filled with cots, giant mattresses, and cozy blankets. There was no shelter, except for the most vivid sheet of stars that coated the sky in blinking diamonds.
We would continue on to see vultures, desert fox, a wild camel, and a decomposing camel. Passing through villages was an emotional experience, as many of the people who resided there were beyond poor. Abhey was well known in all of the villages, and very well respected. To be a desert guide or a camel shepherd was prestigious. Children aspired to tame the desert beasts in order to make a living, as making a living was difficult as a farmer or tradesman was seasonal and unpredictable. Our last full day was spent taking in the scenery, and enjoying the quiet stillness of the environment around us. Abhey prepared a giant meal, and let me make the chai and help him ‘slap’ the chapatti dough. That evening we sat around the fire, just the three of us, as the other group had gone in a different direction. We chatted about life, and how important it is to invest in love, and to love whole-heartedly. Geographically we were located kilometers away from all other human life, and only 60 kms away from the Pakistani border. As the night crackled away, we laid on our cots and revelled in our wild reality.
Morning came, and Abhey let us know he had to leave for an hour but would be back. We didn’t realize it at the time, but he was tracking our camels, who had run off in the night to chase a wild female camel. He tracked them by their footprints, and brought them back to camp. Naughty camels.
A solemn yet satisfying feeling hung in the air. It was our last day in the desert, and our last day adventuring in India. As we hopped off our giant friends, we thanked Abhey profusely. The small man hugged Ryley tightly, and shared a few words of marital wisdom.
Cultural Fact: married men do not usually hug other women, and I knew this. But Abhey was special, and we had built a connection that a handshake would not properly seal.
I carefully held out my arms, and he accepted with grace. I patted his back, and he told me to always take care of each other. We waved to the man who would never leave the desert, who had never traveled the world, but didn’t actually need to…because the world traveled to him.
Back to Jodhpur we went, but not without a large man sitting directly behind me burping open-mouth and obnoxiously every 15 minutes. The next 24 hours would be exhausting, as we made our way to the airport and braved a 12-hour layover in Mumbai.
Next stop: Bangladesh.
Liv Review: India is H-U-G-E. In just under a month we were only able to see a small portion of northwestern India. Each region differs from the other, culturally, religiously, and gastronomically. I was blown away by the incredible variety of dishes, and the amazing flavours and spices that went with them. India was the first country where I really began to feel and wrap my head around the effects of colonization. Rich and intriguing history belongs to India, and I was ignorant to a lot of it. I would love to spend more time in the South and Eastern regions of India, as there is so much more to see. It was the one country where I was really able to exercise my negotiation skills. It was the country where I learned about what the actual value of something really is. Overall, I left a small piece of my heart in India. All of my senses were stimulated to maximum capacity, and it is a country that I would like to venture back to as soon as possible. There is so much more to see, taste, hear, and absorb.
Thank you India.
“Abhey - The Thar Desert Shepherd”, filmed and edited by Ryley