Touring India with family

It is time for visits once again and this time we have received my mom. As I already mentioned before with the visit of my dad, our parents are to a great degree responsible of who we are, and my mom is as responsible as my dad for the adventurer that I have inside and for having given me the wings that lead me to believe that there are no limits at the time of letting yourself take the leap and fly. Needless to say, she didn't doubt for a second when I asked her to come and visit us in India. So for two weeks, we left our bicycles with our lovely Indian family to temporarily travel again using public transport. For me, it meant visiting for the second time some of the places that I had already been to back in 2001, with the caveat that this time having much more experience and a much richer perspective, especially as a photographer, I have been able to experience this trip in a different way. On the other hand, it meant having fun walking my mom through the huge cultural shock that involves every first visit to India, and making her travel on my low budget, teaching her how to eat with her hands Indian-style in the popular eateries and have her travel in the famous 2nd Class Sleeper of Indian trains. Some might tell me: “How can you do all that to your own mother???” to which I proudly reply: “well, it just that my mom is like a 4x4, she can do anything”.

This is going to be more of a visual walk with updated personal comments and appreciations since there is not much more than I haven't written before about the following places of India. (I'm sorry my fellow English readers, as all of what I have written before is only in Spanish) 

The old side of Delhi

 Old Delhi is for me, one of the most fascinating places in the world. I could spend days, weeks or even months wandering aimlessly, getting lost in its alleys and never ever get tired of it. The vast array of images, smells and textures is virtually infinite. It triggers an immense combinations of emotions that stimulate the senses.

It is a place where tens of thousands of people conduct their businesses every day in premises that might only have a bunch of feet wide.  The variety of businesses and tasks that are undertaken here is innumerable. It can be that of the blacksmiths working in spaces fully covered in soot and where the very act of breathing might seem like a true miracle. 

Or that of the bakers, baking naan and chapatis in the most reduced imaginable space. Children make the dough at the back while the master baker bakes it in an improvised tandoori oven right at the front of the shop before flinging the fresh hot discs of bread into the air. 

Indian butchers, whose working conditions never ever cease to cause me a horrifying fascination, cram in their shops chopping pieces of meat while sitting in a bloodbath. You will almost certainly want to shake out of your head the image of their shocking standard of hygiene while you are savouring that delicious chicken butter masalawhose chicken we all very well know that has been provided by butcheries like these.

The spare parts dealers, who seem to be able to provide up to the tiniest of the bolts found in pretty much every vehicle in the planet.

The traffic of carts overloaded with stacks of goods, pulled by people whose very existence is limited to reach the end of another day with a few cents in their pockets to be able to eat.

They mix with hundreds of other people rushing around and cycle-rickshaws that struggle to find a gap through which move through in this maze of chaos.

Barbers conduct their popular business improvising shops in any of the remaining gaps of the urban space. Demand is high and they work endlessly.

Some business men opt for saving a few rupees and they tidily trim their beards while waiting for customers to come for some bananas.

Sitting passively in silence, in a posture that seems like being in meditation in the midst of this urban chaos, there are always those residents whose major entertainment seem to be staying for hours people-watching in this very typical crouching position that you see in men all over India. They seem to find joy in simply contemplating the chaos around them.

Delhi is a megalopolis of tens of millions inhabitants where at every step, the extreme contrasts of India are thrown into your face without any reservations. You can't escape these contrasts. One can come to India and see it behind the windows of a luxurious tourist bus like so many that visit this country do, or one can choose to walk through it, confront it, feel it, see its harshness and experience its extremes. You can see that sometimes, the Hinduist karma might seem to justify the ignorance of the misery of others around us and make life go on as though nothing were going on around. 

 It's only a matter of a few steps to jump from luxury to misery. Cows continue to be eternally sacred in India and you can still see them wandering everywhere in the Delhi of the 21st Century, feeding on shit and mostly blocking the frantic pace of this jungle.

Bad luck in Benares

Most people go to Varanasi to take the formidable boat ride along the sacred river Ganges at dawn, when the old town is washed in golden colors as the sun rises and thousands of people bathe and drink from its putrid holy water, filled with unimaginable tons of shit and floating corpses. It's a pretty nice ride and certainly shocking the first time you do it, as it was for me 13 years ago, when I would see the corpses floating as the boat passed by and I couldn't assimilate the idea of what leads people to have faith in things that from a point of view based in pure reason might seem so absurd. Today, I look at religious faith in a different way, with much more humility leaving arrogance behind while not falling into ignorance. Now, I am much more able to understand the refuge (or the necessity) that people find in believing with devotion in something in order to sort out the difficulties of our ephemeral transit through this existence. Unfortunately, in this second time, the weather wasn't on our side and it rained mercilessly for three consecutive days, depriving my mom and Julia of experiencing the mythical sunrise in the Ganges. Nonetheless, Benares (original name of Varanasi) still seem to be oblivious to the pass of time and it remains mostly intact, even when it is, and has always been, one of the most relevant tourist destinations in India. 

People continue to go to Benares to die and its sky is still gray and murky as a result of the ashes from the open-air crematoriums sitting on the shores of the Ganges. As I did 13 years ago, I decide to keep respecting the will of the Indians and my own principles and not to take any photographs of the cremations. Principles that seem not to be shared by other fellow photographers these days. If you expect to see morbid images you are not gonna see them here, for Benares is not limited to offer views of carbonized bodies sitting on piles of wood but it offers an amazing look at every day life in a city that doesn't want to give in to the pass of time. Although the weather played against us, we had the fortune of getting to the city just in time for the multitudinous celebration of Shivaratri. A spectacular religious event that brings pilgrims from all corners of India to celebrate the great night of Lord Shiva. For two full consecutive days the processions blocks every street in the city. During the first night, a 75 km long pilgrimage begins at the ghats.

People of all ages but especially the youngsters begin it in a state of complete euphoria. Dancing, yelling, celebrating.

During day, processions continue to block all the main streets in town. People sing and dance, raise their hands, queue for hours to enter temples.

Once the Shivaratri euphoria is over, the city goes back to normal and it's time to get lost in the maze of alleys of the old town, far away from the popular ghats, where one can appreciate the every day Benares. Business open again, street barbers set up shop right on the side-walks and work tiredlessly.

Cows are as much part of everyday life as people are.

Men prepare delicious chaiin any available space of every block

As the paan experts do as well in their small shops.

Garland sellers challenge the traffic.

At night, street markets shine glamorously

By the river, people hang their clothes out to dry right after washing them in the sacred waters of the Ganges itself.

And no matter at what time in the year we are, monkeys will still reign the roofs of the city. Pretty much the same as it was 13 years ago when several of them ganged-up to surround me and steal the bunch of bananas that I was happily enjoying while I was watching the moon rising above the Ganges.

Agra always sour

Despite my ever-present lack of interest in tourist attractions, I still firmly believe that there are places in this world that must be visited at least once in a lifetime. The Taj Mahal is without a doubt one of them, perhaps even the first one on my list. 13 years ago I fell down to my knees by its dazzling perfection and its immaculate beauty so in this occasion I was nothing but happy to repeat the whole experience. For days in advance, I made perfectly sure to specifically feed the enthusiasm of both my mom and Julia's, telling them how mesmerizing it was to see the transition of the colors that the marble takes as the sun rises above it. We reached Agra filled with illusion, ready to experience the phenomenological beauty of this fusion between the world and the great wonders of architecture. We went to bed early to be able to wake up before dawn, same as I had done the first time. We walked to the entrance, crossed the immense portal of red walls that enclose it and what did we find? That the Taj wasn't there........

 What a frustration. Hours passed by and a fucking veil of thick fog wouldn't move in order to prevent us from enjoying the splendour of the change in colors. Finally, after long hours of waiting, the fog was gone, the sun was up and the Taj revealed itself and cast its magic upon us and while we haven't seen the pinks, the reds, the oranges and the yellows we were at least able to appreciate its magnificently pure blinding white.

 My mom was able to make one of her most awaited dreams come true and that was the most important to me. For the rest, Agra remains to be one of the worst places in this planet, because anywhere outside the boundaries of the Taj, to which the whole city actually owes its very existence, the whole place is a true shithole. It is a place where a foreigner is seen as no more than a walking wallet, an object that must be ripped-off at every step he/she takes and where he will not be allowed to walk more than 10 consecutive steps without being interrupted in order to try to get something out of him in every possible and imaginable way.

Stop calling pink to Jaipur

Jaipur is the great door to Rajasthan, it is an interesting city and famous for what it is called the Pink City. However, I am yet to find out the reason why it is called that way because unless I am color blind and haven't realized it yet, this “Pink City” still clearly looks orange to me.

As every famous place, most tourists fly by this Pink City, they let themselves be ripped-off blatantly several times in a row buying souvenirs at prices inflated with a pump for tractors and they leave rapidly without seeing a fraction of what the city truly has to offer. In the fabrics market one can spend hours watching local women haggling and buying saris while their husbands wearing turbans sit outside bored to death.

Jaipur also has a huge district of sculptors that very few know of. It is magnificent. In it, a huge amount of the statues that will find place in dozens of temples all over the region are skillfully sculpted.

Dressed in blue

Jodphur was a huge surprise for me. The first time I was in India I didn't have time to stay there and I only stopped there to connect buses on the way to Jaisalmer. Big mistake. Looking back, I would've definitely exchanged Udaipur for Jodphur without a second of hesitation, although it is easy to say now that I know both of them. Jodphur, already well into the Rajasthani desert, is famous for its Blue City, which here it is truly blue, not like the infamous Orange City of Jaipur. When one looks up to the sky from any of its thousands of narrow alleys, its blue color blends almost seamlessly with the blue paint of its houses forming a beautiful continuum between the sky and the architecture.

Climbing up to the fort, located high up in the mountain at the heart of the city offers magnificent views of this organic maze of blue houses.

Although you are in a city, it feels as though you were in a village. It's all very quiet and you can even see people bathing their goats.

 People sit at the front of their houses and quietly watch life pass by.

I am a rat

 To end with this two-week journey across northern India, I decided to take “my girls” to Karni Mata, the famous temple of the rats located in the small village of Deshnok right in the Rajasthani desert. It is a temple that has gained quite a lot of popularity since the first time I visited it, for having been played in several TV shows and documentaries. Still, we haven't seen more than two other foreigners while we were there. Despite its fame, Karni Mata and its pilgrims haven't changed much and even today, in 2014, you can still go there and appreciate its devoted pilgrims worshipping the more than 20.000 rats that are said to inhabit this temple like they have been doing it for centuries. It is still compulsory to take off your shoes to enter the temple, it might be possible that there is actually something sacred about walking barefooted stepping on rat excrement mixed with pigeon shit.

People still come to pray to them and undertake the usual ritual of going round the temple and feeding the rats while thousands of others rush by passing in between their legs from rat hole to rat hole. 

Time to leave now but I will be back

Despite not having cycled this part of the trip, the great thing about India is that traveling by train offers a very entertaining experience and where you can actually experience a great deal of the everyday life in this country, since the train is still the main mean of transportation for most people in India, with an astounding 20 million people per day traveling in them. Taking my mom around India has also been very special and proof that one grew to be who one is for a reason and not by a random incident. After several years of having grown up traveling by the hand of my parents, the fact that I can now take them to “my places in the world” is a truly special thing to me.

 Upon our return to Gurgaon our own Indian family was waiting for us. During our last week in India we spent it with them, in family, with Manish, Rocky, family and friends, with whom we have established a relationship that we know it is forever. This is one of the greatest gifts of traveling the world, friends. There is nothing that can be compared to be able to enlarge one's own family and extend it beyond the boundaries of one's own city or country, integrating truly wonderful people to one's life. Our relationship with the Chauhan family is the clearest proof of the sentiment that started the very first time I visited India and that it only got reconfirmed in this third time: I will always go back to India! Now not only because of how great and fascinating it is as a country but now because I even have family in it.

 Until then, it is time to pack our bicycles to fly once again, hopefully the last one. The deteriorated political situation in Pakistan, Syria and Yemen has made it impossible for us to cycle all the way to Africa, they block every single possible way to reach the continent by land, so despite my frustration we had to take a flight all the way to Cairo.