A Terrible Thing Happened…

A terrible thing happened the day we left India. A terrible thing happened to a man just trying to carry something across a busy road. And I saw it and heard it and felt it. And now I can’t stop thinking about it.

A day earlier our hotel had arranged a taxi to take us from Pelling to Siliguri, getting us close to the airport for our flight to Dubai the next day.

We’ve had so many wonderful drivers in India but this kid – he was a punk. I didn’t like him from the start and I told Root, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
 

He smoked and spit, drove fast and reckless while taking calls on his phone and honking at cars to let us pass. I had gotten used to the driving in India, but this was extreme. We were in the steep mountains of Sikkim, where the roads are very narrow and – let’s just say “rustic” – with tight winding turns on the edge of HUGE drop-offs.

Despite all this, we made it to Siliguri about 5 hours later, exhausted but in one piece. The kid offered to take us to the airport the next morning. We agreed and I don’t know why except for the fact that it was a short drive and one less thing to arrange.

The next day was more of the same fast and reckless driving. But you have to understand, this is basically how it’s done in India...cars and trucks passing one another with barely a second to spare before colliding with oncoming traffic. Root and I looked out the window, knowing these were our last moments in India. We smiled and shook our heads at the many “close calls” because after 5 weeks in India it still made us nervous but it also made us laugh.

The driver knew when our flight was – we had tons of time. I thought about telling him to slow down. It was so unnecessary to speed like that, and then it happened.

In the chaotic, horn-honking, motley mix of people, animals and cars criss-crossing the road, a man walked steadily across without looking at the oncoming traffic.
 

Perhaps he just trusted the traffic would move around him. Perhaps he couldn’t turn his head easily without dropping the huge pile of straw or something he was carrying on his head. And then of course the driver was going so fast there was no time to slow down.

I saw the man get closer to us as the driver tried to slam on the breaks. It was like a camera zooming in really fast on an actor in a movie. I said something like “Oh noooooo!” And then BAM!

I bent over with my head in my hands, not wanting to move or look up or believe what just happened. I was in shock but could hear the immediate yelling of men all around the car, shouting at this kid.

Root said, “We should get out of the car.” I looked up and saw they were putting the man (who was knocked unconscious) into the front seat in order to bring him to the hospital. The driver was frantically motioning for us to stay in the car. I’m not sure why. We tried to tell him we needed our bags from the trunk, but he did not understand English and kept going. I thought for sure we’d never see our bags again. Thankfully, he only moved the car off to the side of the road. The police arrived and got in the backseat. Root went over and got our bags. Traffic resumed and I stood stranded on the other side of the road until some men came over and helped me cross the street. We jumped in another cab and made it to the airport.

It’s hard to describe how upsetting this was. I have no idea what happened to that man. I will never know. I hope he’s OK and I hope he got adequate care. I wish this hadn’t been our last experience in India but I know that accidents happen every day, everywhere. I thought about not telling you guys about this, but this is real life. If there are lessons to be drawn from it, I am reminded that life is precious and every life matters. We have to slow down and we need to take care of each other.

Sikkim's Colorful Monasteries

Perched high atop the mountains amid the clouds are the amazingly colorful Buddhist monasteries of Sikkim. We had seen many Hindu temples and Jan shrines in India, but no Buddhist monasteries. While Buddhists are only a fraction of the population of India, they make up nearly a third of the population of Sikkim. Overflowing with color and history, the monasteries of Sikkim seem unreal. While we couldn’t take photos inside, the interiors were even more colorful than the exteriors. 

Butter Candles and Tormas

One of the incredible things we found were the rows upon rows of burning butter candles. Typically made of ghee (clarified butter) in bronze metal cups, butter candles are burnt as offerings. Today they are often housed in separate buildings due to several disastrous fires. Inside the monasteries you will also find beautiful colorful Tormas, colored sculptures made of Yak butter. We were captivated by their beautiful designs and complexity. There is even a special festival in Tibet where they construct gigantic ones and light up the night with butter candles.

Rumtek Monastery

The seat of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Rumtek is the largest and arguably most beautiful monastery in Sikkim. It was in ruins before the 16th Karmapa (head of the Karma Kagyu sect) restored it in 1959 after fleeing from Tibet.

Dubdi Monastery

Located high above the small town of Yuksom, Dubdi monastery built in 1701 is the oldest in Sikkim. After a beautiful, but very steep walk that left us out of breath, we arrived at the top of the mountain at Dubdi. Sadly the outside was undergoing renovations, but we got to talk to a teacher for a bit that was teaching the younger monks English.

Tashiding Monastery

After a bumpy taxi ride, and crossing one of the scariest bridges I’ve even seen (any bridge that has guys with wrenches tightening the bolts is bad), we arrived at Tashiding. We had just missed the annual Bumchu festival. Every year the monks fill a giant pot with water from the river and then a year later they open the pot and the level of the water is said to predict the fortune of the area for the next year. The monastery was surrounded by a beautiful area with chortens (burial stones) and inscriptions.

Pemayangtse Monastery

One of the more important and famous monasteries of Sikkim is Pemayangtse. It is the head of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism in Sikkim, which includes Dubdi and Tashiding monasteries. The Lama of Pemayangtse was also responsible for anointing the Chogyal, or King, of Sikkim. When we visited it was drizzling so we didn’t get any pictures of the outside. On the top floor of Pemayangtse though is an incredible seven-tiered painted wooden structure full of rainbows, a giant tiered building, and fantastical creatures. Created by one artist over five years, it depicts the Guru Rinpoche’s Heavenly Abode.

A Home Away From Home

It was 81 days into the trip when we arrived at the doorstep of Wanchuk’s family’s house in Gangtok, the capital city of Sikkim, India. We weren’t sure what to expect, or where we would even be staying for the night, but our friend Wanchuk from Washington, D.C. had assured us, “Don’t worry, everything will be taken care of.”

Wanchuk’s mother, Pemla, greeted us warmly and showed us to a guest room she had prepared for us. She invited us to call her Amla meaning “mom.” As we sat in the living room while she made us some tea, glancing at photos of our friend in picture frames around the room, it was hard to hold back tears.

Although I hadn’t felt homesick yet, it occurred to me that you don’t realize when things are missing from your life, when you’re caught up in your daily routine.


Whether you’re simply distracted or accustomed to its absence, you don’t realize the impact…until that missing thing presents itself. A home cooked meal. A real bed and house to sleep in. The joy and comfort of being with people you know and love. Half way across the world, we had found a home away from home.

Wanchuk’s family’s house in Gangtok. Beautiful setting high up near the top of the city, with views of Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.

Pemla treated us to a variety of authentic Sikkimese meals - so delicious! She is passionate about food, travel, and social work, amongst other things, and reminded me so much of Wanchuk.

Pemla is taking care of these two girls from less fortunate families. Here they are in the kitchen cleaning some rice.

Wanchuk's sister Chiphel showed us around town and took us to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. She has an adorable young son (also named Wanchuk!) and is engaged to be married soon. It was great to catch up with her.

Pemla took us around to all the local sites including the king's monastery, the flower show and handicraft center, and helped coordinate our travels through Sikkim. We found Sikkim very different from the rest of India, which makes sense as it was an independent country up until 1975 when India took over. Pemla also brought us to a local Tao center she is involved with (above) and explained that Tao is more of "a way of life." 

Tranquil Countryside at Martam

It's the most peaceful place you could ever imagine, surrounded by rice paddy fields. Pemla arranged for us to stay at Martam Village Resort for a couple nights. It was exactly what I needed at that point, having caught a cold and feeling really run down. The resort is owned by Wanchuk's aunt and uncle, whose daughter we also know from D.C. (Shenphen) and we got to visit with them later in Gangtok.

Here's the cottage we stayed in.

Kewzing Village Homestay

One of the highlights of our time in Sikkim was staying with Wanchuk's relatives in the small village of Kewzing. The family runs a farm and "homestay" accommodation, which is a great way to connect with local people and culture, and it's not just for students. (Check out Homestay360 and Airbnb.)

The house in the middle/back is 300 years old!

Our hosts, along with the father not pictured here.

The kitchen/dining area, with an old wood-burning stove - amazing! 

We sat at this little table and had the most delicious home-cooked meals including momos (dumplings). 

This was such a treat... the local millet beer. It actually reminded us of sake.

Farming the old-fashioned way.

And a pig!

The family cat and dog.

Pemla's father's monastery just down the road.

The town. It was like stepping back in time.

Wanchuk's aunt and uncle, in their house in town.

Mount Kangchenjunga eluded us for much of our time in Sikkim, but one morning in Kewzing we saw the mountains peaking through the clouds. When we caught a glimpse here and there, they barely looked real,  floating in the clouds so much higher than the other mountains. 

If you're planning on long-term travel, try to meet up and stay with people you know along the way. Try to incorporate a homestay. You'll get a true sense of the place, a feeling of home, and best of all, a very memorable experience.

BLS India Visa Nightmare

UPDATE (December 2014): The process is much easier now. Many countries can get a visa on arrival by applying online 4 days before arrival.

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It was just like a bad nightmare, you know the kind where you forget to wear pants to work, but it was actually happening. Forty-eight hours before our year-long trip was going to start I was on an overnight train back to D.C. hoping to get my passport back. I hadn’t lost it, it wasn’t stolen, it was the same one that I’ve had for years, but I had given it to a company called BLS in order to get a visa to visit India.

How to Apply

More than 30 days before I had submitted our visa applications and passports. The whole application process was confusing to say the least, but here are a few things I wish I had known beforehand. 

Applying in person or by mail

Since we were in the D.C. area, I felt it would be safer to apply in person. If you don’t live near a BLS office, you will need to mail your passports and application. BLS is the company that processes the visa applications for India in the U.S.

Deciding on the visa duration

As a U.S. citizen you can get a 6 month, 5 year, or 10 year visa. The 10 year and 5 year visas cost the same, so if you have the money to spare, you should go ahead and get the 10 year visa. You can see the most recent visa fees on the BLS website. Note that the visa duration starts as soon as it’s issued. So if you are applying more than 6 months ahead, your visa may run out before you even leave. I would recommend that you get the longer visa and start the application process 2 or 3 months ahead of your departure.

Filling out the forms

Since we applied, BLS has outlined the application process in a more user-friendly format on their website. It’s pretty straight forward. For your in-India reference, you can use the name, address, and phone number of your first hotel in India. You can also try calling the help line if you have any questions.

Booking your appointment

If you decide to apply in person, you will need to book an appointment. The appointments are only in the morning and only during the week, so you will need to take time off of work if you plan to do this. Also, don’t expect your appointment to actually happen on time. You will likely need to wait a while before someone is available to help you. The BLS office in D.C. is a 10 minute walk from the Union Station metro on I Street in a small office building.

Checking your status

After applying you can check the status of your application online. I’d recommend keeping a copy or picture of your passport, as it can be easier to look up your status by passport number rather than the order form number they give you. If they have to resubmit your application you will get a new order form number, but will still be able to lookup the status of your most recent submittal by your passport number.

A Very Close Call

My passport, including 7 submittal receipts

My passport, including 7 submittal receipts

With only a few days before our first flight, I still didn’t have my passport. Before leaving D.C. we had gone back to the BLS office, twice, and submitted an entirely new application. Nobody could give a straight answer as to what was wrong, just a vague mention of a bad scan, or something wrong with their software. We had arranged for BLS to overnight my passport to New York where we were staying with Beth’s parents. Online I could check the status and see that the Indian embassy had issued my visa, but as I checked the status again and again, no indication or tracking number appeared. 

I was freaking out. Wait one more day and hope that it was shipped, or go back one last time and get things settled?  

 

Worried, I got on an overnight train back to D.C. Leaving at 10 PM from New York I got in at 4 AM. After just a few fitful hours of sleep at a hotel near Union Station, I hurried over to the BLS office. Getting there just as they opened, I got my passport back and jumped on the first train back to New York. The nightmare was over and we were ready to start our trip!

 

First Time Train Travel in India

A local train in Mumbai. An overnight train to Varanasi. A subway ride in Delhi. And a regional train ride to Jhansi. Those were the four, very different train rides we took in India and it was definitely a unique experience.

The country’s train system is extensive to say the least.

  • 40,000 miles of track
  • serves 18 - 25 million people daily
  • run by 1.6 million staff (making it the world’s largest employer)

Our first rides were made easier and less daunting as part of a small tour group, but with that experience under our belts we know we’d be up to the challenge of booking and boarding the trains independently on our next trip. There are a ton of great tips online, so if you’re headed to India just make sure to do your research.

The Quick Jump

While in Mumbai, we spent an afternoon walking through the famed Dharavi slum via Reality Tours (highly recommend). To get there, we took a local train together with our guide and group. I was the only woman on the tour. I imagined getting crushed by hundreds of sweaty Indian men and possibly getting groped but Root promised to protect me, so onward we went.

We boarded the train mid-day (and therefore off-peak) so to my surprise, the scariest thing I would have to contend with was the fact that the train only stops for 15 seconds at each station, give or take. I thought, “What if we don’t get off in time? What if the train starts moving while I’m stepping off?” But we edged our way close to the exit and it all worked out fine.

{video} Here’s a video I took while on the train. The guide explained that the compartment you see here is designed for a capacity of 100, but at peak times around 500 squeeze into each car!

{video} A train coming into the grand Victoria Terminus Station in Mumbai. As you can see, people jump on and off these while the train is moving. We read that they are thinking of adding doors now due to the numerous deaths and accidents caused by this each year.

{video} Here’s that awesome closing dance number from the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Just because. (Recognize the location?)

The Sleeper Car

More bunk beds! We boarded an overnight train to Varanasi and got assigned to a section with other locals. They did not speak English, but no matter – there seemed to be an understood respect and manner of moving within those small quarters. We were told to use a cable lock and tightly guard our things, which we did, even though the people around us had no intention to steal.

There were two young parents and a toddler (who was wearing a Yankees t-shirt – HA) in the bunks above Root, and two men in the bunks above me. The middle bunk collapses down during the day so people can sit on the bottom bunk, and when I got sleepy enough, I motioned to the man sitting next to me to help me set up and secure the middle bunk so I could go to sleep.

I managed to get around 5 hours; Root maybe 3. (Those beds aren’t really designed for tall people.) The squat toilet on the train really was as bad as they say. Just remember your toilet paper and hand sanitizer. And I hate to tell you this – but when I woke up in the morning I found three cockroaches crawling around. Thank god I didn’t see those before going to bed!

{video} A quick peek at our sleeper section in the morning, once our bunkmates had gotten off.

The Countryside

Our train ride from Agra to Jhansi was the most “normal” train we took – like a regional commuter train and quite comfortable. This is a fantastic way to see the rural side of life in India and scenic countryside. We were provided with a small hot meal, a small bottle of water and of course, tea.

Even in the train station…your friendly neighborhood cow

The Separation

Although the frequent separation of the sexes feels both odd and backwards, I have to admit there are distinct advantages when it comes to train travel. While Root had to endure extreme sardine-like conditions on a subway ride in Delhi, I got to enjoy the spacious women-only compartment. We just had to make sure to get off at the same stop.

The Toy Train (almost)

Unfortunately we missed taking a ride on Darjeeling’s famous antique “toy train,” as tickets were sold out that day. Still, we took the same route via taxi on our drive from the airport. The track follows the same path as a steep and windy road through the mountains called Hill Cart Road.

There are also tons of luxury trains in India, if you can afford it. Though I doubt it would afford the same opportunity to connect with local life and people.

Have you taken the train in India? Share your experiences and tips with us below.

Spicy and Sweet

That’s how I’d describe it, in a couple of words.

The kesar pista kulfi ice cream I had in Mumbai – a popular Indian dessert.

Indian food has always been one of our favorites and not surprisingly, we found it both different and better than in the States.

Spicy curries and deep fried snacks, sweet teas and lassis, lots of mango juice (mmm). I swear I was gaining weight until I fell victim to “Delhi Belly.” I’m pretty sure it was the kesar pista kulfi, which is this amazing saffron pistachio ice cream.

Veg and Non-Veg

At least a third of all Indians are vegetarian and most menus have separate sections for “veg” and “non-veg” dishes. You won’t find any beef, as cows are considered sacred, but you’ll find plenty of “mutton” (usually goat, or else lamb), which Root often enjoyed while I mostly sampled the many different vegetarian dishes.

Speaking of meat, one day we walked through the meat market in Darjeeling and let me tell you… it could convert many a meat eater to vegetarian. I’m not sure how meat stored and sold in those conditions could possibly be sanitary. But then again, we don’t “see” the meat we eat back home, not to mention the unhealthy chemical additives.

Street Food

While on our group tour, our guide led us to a handful of street stalls to sample some of India’s street food.

Kachoris in Jaipur. These were stuffed with a kind of spiced veg mix, kind of like a samosa. Really good!

Trying my first lassi at Jaipur’s most famous lassiwala. YUM.

And the guy who made it.

Home Cooking

In the small village of Orchha, we had the opportunity to visit a local home and get a cooking demonstration. A young woman named Rajni whipped up a complete Indian meal for our group (including breads and chutney) using a four-burner gas stove and a tin full of spices. It was so delicious; it easily ranked in the top 5 meals we had in India.

Masala Tea

First, she made a pot of fresh masala tea, also called masala chai. (Masala means "mixture of spices" and chai means "tea.") 

Here's the recipe.

8 small coffee cups of water
1 cup milk (full fat)
4 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons loose Aassam black tea
3 pieces green cardamom
2 pieces black cardamom
2 pieces cloves
5 pieces black peppercorn
a pinch of cinnamon stick
3 tablespoons pressed ginger

  • Start boiling the water in a medium-sized pot.
  • Combine and mash all spices together, then add them to the pot.
  • Add in the milk and let it come to a slow boil until it turns a beautiful, rich color. (5-6 minutes)
  • Cover and take off heat for 2 minutes.
  • Strain and serve.

Helping roll out the dough for the puri - a deep fried puffed bread. 

The complete meal. This was only my first helping :)

(Clockwise from top left): Eggplant curry, boondi raita,  okra curry, spinach and potato curry, puri and chapati bread, guava chutney, rice pulao.

Rajni and her son.

Doors of India

At home doors are generally pretty plain, flat faces with door knobs, perfectly practical, perfectly dull.  A few front doors may have some windows, or side-lights, but in India, things are different.  Decorative carvings, cool metal hardware and a wide variety of shapes and colors.

This door has spikes to prevent elephants from sneaking into your fort.

This entry way features three landings depending on if you arrive by horse, camel, or elephant.

Doors in India don’t need fancy landings, or elephant proof hardware to be interesting.  Some of the most beautiful ones are the simple rural doors made of wood and rusted hardware.  Weathered colors set in aging buildings create an almost magical feeling that this door, or building could be the same as it was hundreds of years ago.

India’s Architectural Mash-Up

While most people in India practice Hinduism, Islam is the second-largest religion, making up 13.4% of the population. Visiting the old temples and mosques, palaces and forts, you'll see the intersection of these two ancient cultures reflected in the architecture. This fascinating mash-up of styles and symbols is known as Indo-Islamic architecture.

The key event happened around 800 years ago. That's when Delhi came under Muslim rule for the first time. Then in the early 16th century the Mughals took over and mixed things up even more, combining elements from Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles.

The Jama Masjid of Delhi, completed 1656, includes a courtyard that can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. The onion domes and minarets - a hallmark of mosques and Islamic architecture - have a unique striped design.

Scalloped arches- a Hindu design element - inside the Jama Masjid.

The Hawa Mahal or "Palace of Winds", built in 1799, allowed royal ladies to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen via 953 small latticed windows. Unfortunately, the position of women suffered under Muslim influence. The Purda System was introduced in the Hindu society and women were compelled to live in seclusion and wear veils to cover their faces.

The Agra Red Fort (really a walled palatial city) is an example of Mughal architecture. Mughal ruler Akbar the Great had the fort renovated using red sandstone in 1573. The smooth arches are Islamic; the scalloped arch inlays are Hindu. Akbar tried to foster harmony between Hindus and Muslims, and even attempted to form a new, universal religion focused on peace, unity and tolerance.

Courtyard at Agra Red Fort.

The Jehangiri Mahal at Agra Red Fort has an arched portal with two jharokhas (overhanging enclosed balconies). The primary function of the jharokha was to allow women to see the events outside, but also added to the architectural beauty of buildings.

At Fatehpur Sikri city: The geometric patterns reflect Islamic style; the lotus and floral patterns reflect the Hindu style. 

At Agra Red Fort: Delicate Hindu ornamental design is blended with Islamic stars and arches.

One of my favorites...the Amber Fort/Palace in Jaipur. The present structure was mostly built under the rule of a King named Man Singh from 1590-1614.

The Ganesh Gate at Amber Fort was named after the Hindu god Lord Ganesh who removes all obstacles in life. Note the latticed windows above the gate – again, for the royal ladies to view the activity below.

The Ganesh Gate close up.

Elephants have been worshipped in Hindu culture for centuries and appear often in India's art and architecture. 

At Amber Fort: More scalloped arches (love these!) with lotus detail in the columns.

At Amber Fort: The Kesar Kyari saffron garden with its planted star patterns is made to look like a beautiful, floating Persian carpet.

The Kesar Kyari saffron garden close up.

The famous Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) at Amber Fort was built for the queen, who was not allowed to sleep in open air but loved to see the stars. With just a single candle lit and reflected in all the tiny intricate mirrors, the entire room lights up.

The elegant and majestic Taj Mahal, completed in 1653,  is said to be the finest example of Mughal architecture. 

The dome of Taj Mahal resembles an upside-down closed lotus resting on its petals.

Stone inlays at the Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah aka "Baby Taj" incorporate floral, plant, star and geometric motifs.

The ancient temples at Khajuraho were amazing. This newer temple incorporates three different domes representing multiple faiths in the community.

Wonder and Amusement in India

As a fair-skinned, light-haired woman, I knew what to expect. I’d read about the stares and the eve teasing I would be subject to and I was prepared for the worst. And then like so many things on this trip, I experienced something completely different from what I anticipated.

When you lose the ability to speak with people because you don’t speak the same language, you pay closer attention to body language. It’s like how a blind person’s sense of hearing becomes heightened as they listen more intently to the sounds and conversation around them.

I learned there’s so much you can detect and communicate just by looking into someone’s eyes. The whole range of human emotion if you think about it.


Confusion, surprise, sadness, anger, suspicion, tiredness, concentration. You can smile and flirt with your eyes. You can stare or threaten someone.

These guys wanted a photo of me, so I got one of them too!

But when I looked into the eyes of the locals staring back at me it was almost always one thing: wide-eyed wonder. Plain and simple, an innocent and intense curiosity in someone completely different.

As a foreigner in a far away land, you are as different to them as they are to you. They way you look, dress, eat, speak and move. I had read that people would want to take photos with us and the first time it happened, we were quite amused. We thought, “What is so remarkable about us?” Beautiful women dressed in saris everywhere, and they want pictures of us? We wondered if it was some kind of scam.

When they didn’t ask, I caught people trying to sneak photos of us with their cell phones. You’d think we were celebrities!

One day when we were driving through a rural area on our group tour, we passed what looked like a country fair. Someone asked if we could stop the bus and ten of us jumped out. The fair included a handful of amusements… a giant inflatable slide, two elephants providing rides, balloons and concessions, and a huge tent filed with people, a stage and live music at the end of it.

I gestured that I wanted to take a photo of this little girl and she gave me that famous Indian head bobble - meaning "ok, fine" but you can see she wasn't too happy about it.

We made our way to the tent first, garnering plenty of wide-eyed looks along the way. The tent was divided down the middle – women and children on the left; men on the right. We stopped at the edge and listened to the music a while. People seemed to draw closer around us. Two young girls stood a couple feet away staring directly at me. I smiled and gave a little wave to the girls, which made them giggle and look away shyly. Really, we might as well have been aliens that just landed from outer space. We made our way towards the elephants.

Within minutes people started to form a large circle around us. Lots of cell phones started to flash. An excited young woman pleaded with me to take a photo with her. I looked into her excited, desperate eyes and really wanted to say yes.

“Um...well…” I said.
“Oh please!!” she said.

The crowd got bigger and tighter around us. I knew if I said yes to her I’d be mobbed by dozens of others.

What was at first amusing was starting to get very uncomfortable and increasingly claustrophobic. We had become the main attraction.


It was time to leave. We made a beeline for the exit and laughed a lot later about the funny and surreal experience.