Places: Bangkok, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Tordigarh, Pushkar, Udiapur, Mumbai, Goa – Anjuna, Vagator
After NZ we stopped in Bangkok for a few days. We’d both been here before and had done all the touristy bits and bobs so we spent the days acclimatising to Asian culture, topping up on a few last minute vaccinations and enjoying the fact we could at last afford to go out for meal!
Our next destination was India! We were a little weary of travelling India by ourselves and we’d heard from many that it’s not an easy country to travel, so we decided to book onto a 15 day tour. Having never been on a tour before, we were dubious to say the least, but it was the best decision we could of made and we had an incredible time in this very colourful country.
We flew straight from Bangkok to New Delhi (on business class!) and that’s where the fun started! ‘Taxi, taxi, you wan a tuk tuk, where you going!’ shouted by hundreds of Indian men. Trying to not look like fish out of water we managed to haggle a ‘reasonable’ price for a driver to take us to our hotel. This was our first and petrifying experience of Indian driving. Headed down a four lane motorway there appeared to be absolutely no rules. We weaved at high speeds in and out of traffic, never sticking to any lane. And then all of a sudden halting to a stop in the middle of the motorway, out of nowhere, an Indian man hops in to join us. We then raced on squeezing through gaps I wouldn’t have attempted to walk through all the while horns honked from every vehicle with little significance. Finally we made it to our hotel a nervous reck!
We arrived in Delhi a day before our tour started so we took the time to explore what the capital had to offer. We fancied some lunch so off we went in search of a restaurant. How hard could this be? We’ve eaten at Indian restaurants lots of times before.. Korma? Tikka Masala? Erm not in India! We didn’t understand a word of the menus! Luckily we found a great little restaurant with a very nice waiter who could at least speak Hinglish (Hindu and English) and he ordered us the most amazing curries. All for under £3. Hmm we could get used to this!
We spent the next day wondering around miles and miles of markets and taking tuk tuks to different sights of Delhi. Here we got our first encounter or bombardment of everyone wanting photos of us especially with ‘Ali Baba!’ aka Jamie (they loved his beard). It was also hilarious watching people sneakily yet soo obviously taking photos of us pretending they were taking selfies of themselves. It was very funny but it got pretty tedious over the weeks to come. We were already amazed by India’s culture, it’s beauty and it’s utter chaos’ness. Yes it was pretty ‘gritty’ in places but we instantly loved it!
The next evening we met our group and our tour leader, Clio from Mumbai. There were 12 of is in total and we kicked off getting to know each other over another delicious curry. Our group consisted of people from around the world, all of similar ages (the mature travellers as we kept being referred too). And phew we had a good group!
The following morning we were up bright and early and on the 6am train to Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. The train was pretty pleasant, much nicer than what we’ve seen on the television and we were even served a yummy breakfast. This lead us into a false sense of security for what we had to come.. We safely arrived in Agra and it was very touristy and very dirty! This was our first experience of how sacred cows are in India. Tens of cows were just roaming the streets and roads and if they wanted to have a lie down in the middle of a busy highway then everyone had to go around them. Simple. The weather was pretty miserable in Agra and everyone spent the day worrying that our sunset tour of the Taj Mahal would be pretty non-exsitant. Nevertheless we soldiered on and visited the Red Fort in the drizzle. Late afternoon soon came around and we all headed for the greatly anticipated Taj Mahal. We had a local tour guide to take us around the Taj and as far as we were aware he was very knowledgeable and gave us a great tour. As we walked through the security gates, the heavens opened and it poured!! Although we did not see any sight of a sunset, this actually worked in our favour as everyone just disappeared for fear of getting wet. Consequently, we virtually had the whole place to ourselves. Words can’t describe how beautiful the Taj Mahal actually was in real life. It looked like it was painted on the sky and it didn’t look real. It was stunning! We were allowed into the building itself and after our guide slipped a few rupees into the security mans pocket we were inside the Taj Mahal by ourselves! It was incredible! But so much smaller inside than we’d expected.
This was our first experience of the ‘Indian System’. We were told that India has no system but the system works. And we found that was very true! Whatever you wanted/needed in India you could get in a flash – from the right phone numbers and a few rupees. Chocolate cake laced with a personal birthday message, tomato ketchup for blonde hair turned green, a guitar.. just a phone call away. And it all came with a personalised Indian man on the back of a motorbike, minutes later to exactly the spot we were at. It was unbelievable! What we also noticed early on was that India is most certainly a mans world. So much so that we hardly ever saw women/girls, anywhere! On the streets, restaurants, markets..all men. The men we came into contact with would also never speak to or deal with me. They would only speak to Jamie and would only take money from Jamie. Men were served first and only the men were asked if they wanted anything or whether they enjoyed their meal etc. It was very interesting but very strange.
After Agra we caught a local bus to Jaipur. 6 hours to do 250kms! Even Mazie Bongo wasn’t that slow! (Luckily we all managed to get seats). This was an experience in itself as we past through some amazing countryside and through many traditional Indian villages, whilst water poured into the bus every time we went through a puddle. The toilet stop was one we’d rather forget though!
Feeling a little tired from our journey, we all decided to go and watch a Bollywood film. The cinema was in a famous theatre and it was a great experience. Whilst sat, waiting for the curtains to go up, we were imagining lots of colour, singing and dancing. How wrong we’re we?! The first scene was a mother and son being murdered by a bank robber. Apparently this is modern day Bollywood..? The whole film continued with this theme and was violent and brutal throughout. Although the film was in Hindi we managed to just about work out what was going on and it was actually quite a good film. Just completely unexpected! After all this kidnapping and killing, the credits rolled and everyone in the movie started singing and dancing in true Bollywood fashion. We later learnt that the films name translated to ‘revenge city’ – maybe we should have looked that one up first!
During the rest of our time in Jaipur we visited the Amber Fort and the city palace. These were beautiful and the architecture was unbelievable. Nonetheless, despite the pretty generous entrance fees, all of these buildings were being left to reck and ruin and were literally crumbling away. An incredible shame. We also went to a silk factory which was very interesting until we were ambushed into their shop and virtually forced to buy something. This is their way in India. ‘No hassle shopping’, they cried in the streets as they quite literally man handled us into their shop; whilst pulling every piece of merchandise from the shelves for us to ‘just look’ at. It was exhausting!
We were then picked up by two jeeps and headed south to a village called Tordigarh. Our driver was crazy!! He put his foot to the floor and that’s where it stayed, weaving in and out of traffic, off roading when he felt like it and then when it came to a single track for the second half of the journey it became a game of chicken; ie when we had oncoming traffic we’d speed towards them, head-on, and in the last second the ‘weaker’ driver would have to veer off the road to let the other past. Our driver was never the weak one. We soon realised, nevertheless, that our driver was probably the most skilled driver we’d ever come across. He was definitely a professional rally driver in a past life. With Indian music blasting out from the speakers, the journey was great fun!
The village was possible our favourite place in India and it was a privileged experience. We stayed in the King of the villages home turned guest house which was lovely. The village was so peaceful compared to the chaotic and noisy towns we’d been to. It was like one huge farmyard with chickens, ducks, pigs, cows, dogs and goats roaming freely. We were invited to lunch by one of the villagers and were cooked a delicious meal of lentils and bread which we ate in their courtyard. Over the next few days we met a lot of the villagers, learnt of their culture, religions and different ways of farming. We also went on a tour of the area in tordi’s (Indian jeeps) where we visited other villages and watched amazing sunrises and sunsets from the top of sand dunes.
Reluctant to leave the village we headed further south with our racing driver to Pushkar. Pushkar is a town where Indians go for pilgrimage. We participated in a traditional ‘pooja’ ceremony by a lake when we had to chant many sentences in Hindu, asking for health, wealth and happiness. Whilst throwing rice, spices and rose petals into the lake after this combination was imprinted onto our foreheads. It was an interesting experience but the ‘priest’ who lead the ceremony we later discovered was also a tuk tuk driver and a camel handler to name a few. Hmm.. In Pushkar it was forbidden to eat meat or drink alcohol due religious reasons. However marijuana didn’t appear to have such rules and everyone in the town was always high and consequently it drew a very hippy crowd. On one of the nights here we participated in a traditional evening set in the middle of sand dunes. We all got dressed up in traditional Indian attire; Jamie in a turban was very funny! The night kicked off with an incredible yet crazy magician. He jabbered onto us in Hindu and although we didn’t understand a word, he was hilarious! We then ate a delicious meal followed by a dance show where of course we had to participate. It was so much fun!
Pushkar was where we were during ‘holi’. A colour festival to mark the start of a new year and it was carnage! Everyone sets out in all white clothing and powder of every colour you can think of is thrown at one another; along with a water fight to ensure the colour sticks. The streets of Pushkar were unrecognisable the following day as they had a heavy covering of pink powder and peoples coloured clothes were everywhere. It was great fun yet the colour stained our skin and hair (including Jamie’s beard) for weeks!
We then caught a local train to Udaipur. This was when we found out that the train we took to Agra was a tourist train. The train was just how you imagine an Indian train to be like. Children on the tracks searching for food, jammed packed carriages and open doorways right onto the track. It was so noisy and so uncomfortable (despite having a seat and not being in the lowest class). Nevertheless the 7 hour trip was a great experience. We met some wonderful people from all walks of life and everyone insisted on sharing their home cooked food with us.
We made it to Udiapur and it was beautiful. Named the city of love as the whole town is set around a pretty man made lake. We even stayed in a hotel that had hot shower! We spent a few days here and we got to witness a traditional Indian wedding, try our hand at Indian cooking where as a group we made a traditional dinner for everyone. Jamie participated in an art course, I had a henna done and we all attending a yoga class. Unfortunately Jamie and I were placed right next to a very smelly ‘squat’ loo during the yoga so during this tranquil experience we found ourselves gagging throughout!
A quick flight later and we find ourselves in Mumbai! I was looking forward to this city the most and it did not disappoint. It was crazy and busy but we loved it! It was still very Indian but with a western twist. Here I was actually allowed to walk around with my knees and shoulders exposed! A welcome break in the stifling heat! We hired tuk tuks to give us a tour of the city and here we witnessed the wealth gap more than ever. Hundreds of families had set up homes on the street whilst on the same street the wealthiest men in India walked. A staggering 52% of people who live in Mumbai live in slums and each day 300 families are moving to Mumbai in search of work and a better life. Overcrowded was an understatement!
We really wanted to visit a slum but obviously you can’t just walk into a slum and we also didn’t want to go on a tour which made the slum more like a zoo. In the end we did book a tour with a charity but we were very skeptical. We were picked up early the next morning by a resident of the Dharavi slum, one of the largest in Mumbai. He was a lovely guy and was very funny! He told us that he wanted to work for the charity but his English wasn’t good enough so for a year he watched Hollywood movies and his ‘American’ was perfect. He wanted us to have the whole experience which included getting a local train to the slum. This was such an experience! It was packed! Luckily we managed to get inside the carriage but there were plenty of people hanging onto the outside of the train for dear life. Sooner or later it was our stop, ‘a free massage’ is what they call it in India where we quite literally had to push and squeeze our way out and onto the platform, whilst the train stopped for just 7 seconds. And we thought London rush hour was bad! We all made it off the train in one piece and headed into the slum for a 2 hour tour. It was fascinating and most definitely our best experience in India! This slum alone creates over 600 million USD per year from numerous different factories, bakeries and popadom makers to name a few industries. However the workers weekly income is only a few pounds. The slum was like a rabbit warren with rows and rows of alleyways only wide enough for one person; open drains at our feet and miles of electrical cable at our heads. We stupidly wore flip flops! There was an absolute sense of community in the slum and despite what looked like poverty to us, the slum dwellers were incredibly happy, and content with living in the slum. So much so that 90 odd percent were refusing to live in council flats. We weren’t allowed to take any photos and participating in the tour was actually giving back to the slum so we were greeted well by the community and the whole experience was incredible!!
This is the guilty part.. We all wanted to go for high tea at the Taj hotel, India’s most famous 5 star hotel. And the only time we could go was the afternoon after going to the slum. So in the morning we were in the slum and in the afternoon we were in India’s most expensive hotel sipping Earl Grey. Talk about a contrast! We did feel extremely guilty! When we arrived we were shown to the buffet table with very curry imaginable. We thought it a strange high tea but dug in nonetheless. Only after over eating on the buffet, the high tea was served; sandwiches, scones, cakes, the works! Followed by a buffet selection of over 20 desserts! The Taj wasn’t quite up to scratch with the Ritz darling but we left some hours later incredibly full and still feeling incredibly guilty.
That night we caught an overnight sleeper train down to Goa. We didn’t have a lovely, luxury, private cabin but instead it was open carriages with rows of bunk beds. Despite the constant smell of Indian food wafting down the train and after getting over that the sheets most definitely did not look clean, we actually had a surprisingly good sleep! Even the hole in the trains floor (aka the toilet) wasn’t that bad! Maybe we were getting used to India..
We arrived in Goa and it was HOT! We had stayed in some fabulous places during the tour but unfortunately where we stayed in Goa was not. It felt more like Malaga than India and it was a bit of a disappointment. The itinerary for Goa was to relax after such a hectic itinerary and that’s what we did for the last 2 days of the tour, visiting local and private beaches. The local beaches were full of men hassling every girl who stepped foot on the beach all the while taking photos. It was pretty grim. Nonetheless we had a great last few days with the group and it was really sad to say goodbye to everyone on the last day.
We has decided to spend a while longer in India after the tour and we felt pretty flat after surrounding ourselves with a group for the past few weeks. We moved to a different town in Goa which was much nicer and spent it lounging by a pool. It was pretty lovely!
Positive lessons: you can get anything you want in India with the right contacts and a few rupees.
Next stop: Hong Kong..!
Love Charlotte & Jamie x x