India’s breathtaking landscapes, ancient monuments and rich history make it a fascinating place to visit. Add to that the vibrant colours, tantalising cuisine and mix of cultures, and you have a bucket-list destination.
Sunday morning in Delhi, and although it’s autumn, the air is humid. We attend our pre-tour meeting and prepare to board the shuttle for our first day on tour. As we wait outside the hotel, our first beggar approaches us with outstretched hands. It is a lady in a sari with a child in her arms; this is a common scenario as we later learn. While most of us board the shuttle, a female member of our group, a softly-spoken lady stops and gives a bread roll and a banana to the mother with the young child, whose faces are filled with gratitude. Our tour is officially underway (our first stop is the Red Fort) and symbolically and substantively we have now been welcomed to India.
Although early, the Delhi traffic is still hectic. Our shuttle winds its way through the narrow pot-holed streets into the CBD en-route to the Red Fort. The footpaths are packed full of local people doing business and after circling a large field that hosts dozens of cricket matches, which could be viewed as India’s national sport, we find ourselves in a Sunday morning traffic jam. Despite the frantic efforts of a single policeman, the traffic is crawling at a snail’s pace. On the footpath near us a market is bustling, selling coats, jeans, boots and belts. What amazes me is that all of the customers at this market are males. Who would have thought that in Delhi the men go out shopping while the women stay home!
After several hours of relative peace, sight-seeing and admiring the grandeur of this UNESCO certified monument at the Red Fort, not to mention the huge black birds (they are called ‘Kites’, I believe) that circle around its turrets, we return to the ‘normal’ hectic chaos of Delhi street life. Our first ‘assignment’ is a rickshaw ride from the grandeur of the Red Fort through the alley of the ancient Chandni Chowk area of Old Delhi to the grand Jumma Masjid (Mosque), the oldest one in Delhi dating back to the time of the Moghuls who built the Red Fort. I walk up the old-fashioned way and at several different points I was walking beside animals that could step on me without really inconveniencing themselves. We find a rickshaw man and take a seat in his chariot. I am seated next to a young dark-haired Englishman. “Oooh, this will be exciting”, he says in a soft British accent.
We slowly start moving and our veteran ‘peddler’ finds his rhythm. The first stretch of the ride is on a fairly major street where we dodge slow-moving cars, cows and TukTuks (a three-wheeled contraption that has a scooter’s engine). We laugh nervously at a scene that is inconceivable in our respective (Western) worlds. The laughter becomes raucous as he turns off the ‘main drag’ onto the famous narrow lanes of Chandhi Chowk, which literally means ‘Moonlit Market’, I would not like to take this ride in the moonlight let me assure you! Our driver accelerates knowing what lies ahead.
We navigate our way forward with the cycle bell ringing frantically through twisting, narrow alleys (about 1-2 metres wide) at increasing speed paying no attention to the pedestrians or those who live in this labyrinth. Finally, we clear the alleys and find ourselves stopping, giggling by this time from our rickety rickshaw in the shadow of Jumma Masjid. My nervous English friend was right – that was exciting.
India is nicey. It is spicey. It is dicey, and if you are not careful it will be bery bery pricey my friends. Beware of touts, scams and pickpocketers.
Although there is much sameness in my experience of India, my days are still full of moments that have me laughing out loud at the absurdity of things here – traffic being one. It is not a rare sight to see an entire family on a motorcycle, with the smallest baby perched on the very front and in charge of the horn (in India, you do not have to be a particularly good driver, you just need to be a good honker) and the only person wearing a helmet is the driver (it’s the law – you don’t have to put a helmet on your infant hanging precariously off the side of your motorcycle, but God forbid you yourself don’t wear one!)
Next stop, Jaipur also known as “The Pink City” because of its numerous pink buildings, and is one of the more famous cities in India for tourists. From my experience, most of the tourists must stay in a 3-star hotels and ride to the famous sites, which are mostly located outside the city.
Lesson learned: If you’re ever feeling lonely in India, walk down the street where you will be welcomed by strangers full of smiles and waving at you as if you been staying there for years. Take a chance and enjoy sitting in the passenger seat.
After a couple of days of exploring Jaipur, the time has come to catch the train to Agra to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the Taj Mahal! Everyone says the Taj Mahal is the most beautiful of all Indian monuments, our guide-book says ‘nobody comes away disappointed from the Taj Mahal’. I voluntarily wake up at 5am the next day to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Those of you who haven’t died of shock; note we do not plan on making this a regular occurrence. As the sun rises, the Taj Mahal appears pink and slowly turns white. It was stunning to say the least. The colours were beautiful – the wondrous shades of pinks oranges made it a sight to behold. We decide not to get a tour guide, so we just sat in amazement staring at it, and marvelled at its beauty. And also took about a hundred photos … The Taj Mahal is in itself an architectural tour de force.
The building itself is assembled upon a marble podium surrounded by marble minarets on either side. The minarets lean out slightly which may seem slightly odd but in fact this was a sensible decision by the engineers of the building in order to ensure they do not collapse on the Taj should a violent earthquake ever hit the area.
Every face of the Taj Mahal has a beautiful enormous arch inscribed with religious writings from the Quran along with beautiful carving of flowers. The surroundings of the Taj Mahal are formal but laidback in a huge garden complex with extravagant pools of water guiding your journey up to it from the main gate.
As you enter, the Taj Mahal may seem close but as you walk towards the Taj Mahal you understand the sheer scale of the garden complex as it takes you much longer to reach the building than you initially would have estimated.
Like most of the world’s best views, the Taj Mahal is one of them best seen at dawn. All in all, Agra is kind of a hassle…more so than other places because they are so dependent on tourism trade (they aren’t allowed to industrialise the city because the pollution will cause further damage to the Taj Mahal). In the end India was what I expected in both positive and negative ways. The place is crowded, hot, loud, exhausting, and in the words of my seatmate on one train, “Bamboozling.” It’s also incredible, vibrant, gorgeous, and the food will literally blow your mind. As frustrating as some parts of travelling in India are, I can almost guarantee I will be headed back there at some point, as my experience was only a small slice of a giant country. A man once said that time slows down while you travel. That has been true of my time in India, you either love it or hate it, but trust me you’ll never forget it.
Tips for India:
• Drink bottled water
• Wash fruit before consuming
• Dress light
• Trust your Tuk Tuk driver