Hawa Mahal or "Place of Winds"
The famously elegant Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds, was built so the women of Jaipur’s royal household could watch public life unfold on the streets below with total anonymity.
Seated on the balcony of room 314 at the Alka Hotel overlooking Varanasi’s Ganga – that’s Ganges to you – I am one such woman. Albeit, in place of hand-carved sandstone latticework, my screen is austere rebar. But like those around me, my privileged perch affords me the opportunity to gawk uninterrupted at the hubbub below. I watch as men, young and old, bathe on the ghats (riverside steps). They lather soap across their tawny skin while dressed simply in white cloth draped at the waist. If they know that the river boasts an astounding concentration of fecal coliform, they certainly don’t care; the Ganges is holy water.
I take a swig of chilled Kingfisher beer from a bottle that beads with condensation. For a moment, I feel painfully removed, as if I’m hiding out, choosing an arm’s length experience over immersion. It’s partially true. But also, it’s midday and a breezeless heat sits heavy upon Varanasi’s ghats. I’ll venture out later when the sun arrests its relentless gaze.
The choice for my husband and me to travel to India was not met with total enthusiasm. “India...why?” said the Caribbean resort junkies in my life. At the airport, a family member hugged me tight good-bye. “Have fun, be safe…come home,” she whispered.
I confess, I had some reservations too.
Yet in my brief two-week introduction to India, I’ve learned India is a juxtaposition, though the scales are not equally balanced. I inhale aromatic incense and wafts of savoury curries more often than I am confronted by offensive smells. In dust-choked streets and next to garbage-strewn gullies, men wear crisp white cottons and women’s saris bloom like springtime blossoms. Among throngs of people are pockets of quiet contemplation. And during our eight-day transit of Rajasthan by private car we clip nary a vehicle, pedestrian or cow – a remarkable feat witnessed through my anxiety-riddled passenger eyes. Somehow, with 1.3 billion souls stacked upon one another, it all just flows.
Immediately, I find this intoxicating assault of stimulus addictive. It took 10 years of independent travel for me to find the confidence to visit India but mere seconds to relish in it.
My concerns had been superfluous; I’ve been hassled harder in Vietnam, greater offended by putrid smells in Beijing, suffered worse “Delhi belly” in Thailand, been groped in Switzerland, and mugged in Paris. My most tense moment in India was a construct of my own behaviour: a monkey charged me as I photographed his companion. Swiping my calf, I lost my cool, jumping two feet in the air and shouting a string of obscenities.
India, in fact, has been nothing but hospitable. I’m yet to eat a bad meal and the streets aren’t teeming with abject poverty, nor canvassed by gangs of pimped-out child beggars. There are however, some wonderful stereotypes that have proven true: Rajasthani hospitality, creamy spiced Chai, rooftop restaurants, elephants weaving through street traffic, and an architectural aesthetic so mind blowing it’s hard to convey in words.
My life is richer for visiting India, but my point here is not to sell you on it; it’s to remark upon the fact that perceptions – especially those not our own – should not keep you from travel. Newspaper headlines and well-meaning friends and family could have kept me home and I understand those sentiments can be hard to shake. Still, if you’re wedged somewhere between wanderlust and uncertainty, I urge you to take comfort in these truths…
You are not the first tourist to visit the destination your heart yearns for, nor will you be the last. What – or who – is it you really fear? I assure you, most locals are ordinary citizens going about their pedestrian routines. Yes, you will attract some attention; you look different, dress different, eat and speak differently than local people. Some will stare, sometimes unabashedly. But isn’t that the point? To consume a culture – a human experience – that differs from your own?
View from room 314, Alka Hotel
Now that I’ve drawn the last sip from my Kingfisher and the sun has dipped below the horizon, it’s time to relieve myself from my balcony post. The crooked alleys call to me and the evening aarti celebration will close another sumptuous day in India. Yes, travelling to India made me a bit nervous – but only until I got here.