I imagine all travellers wear their trip to India like a badge of honour. It’s one of those places which tests our patience, apathy, and is probably the first country of it’s type that most have, and will ever visit.
Why travel to india?
So what makes this country such a cool destination, and why are opinions amongst travellers so divided?
MY PERSONAL POSITIVES
Cuisine – Not being a fan of spicy food and fearing ‘Delhi Belly’ I expected to struggle, neither proved to be the case. Finding food which didn’t burn the taste buds from my mouth was easy, course after course ended without sweat erupting from places on the body which shouldn’t, and smooth flavourings electrified each bite. There was only one night I felt a rumbling in my stomach and a local recommended a drink called a lassi. The story went something like this:
Me – “I’m going to stay near the hotel because my stomach is a little off”
Him – “Oh, you should try a lassi”
Me – “What’s a lassi”
Him – “It’s a sweet drink made from a yogurt or buttermilk base with water”
Me – “Um, no that’s a pass from me, pretty sure thats not going to help”
But I did in fact try a lassi, which tasted like a thick mango milkshake and after it appeased the stomach gods, I had one each consecutive day.
Colours – India is a sea of swirling colours and faded decadence. One thing I love about the Indian people is they don’t wear drab colours as we do in the west. Women dress in electrically coloured saris with stones and small pieces of mirrored glass, almost gliding along the dusty streets. Who says you need to dress down when your doing your weekly shop?!
Another thing I loved about Indian fashion, were the trousers men wore without even a hint of tailoring; high waisted and almost flared. They fit as though stolen from clothes line in the middle of the night, just not quite fitting as they should. I would literally be on public buses, chuckling away to myself. But colourful never the less so fair play.
People – Rarely on my travels have I been tested as much by the people, and every hour is different. Throughout the course of a day I would be humbled by incredible kindness, frustrated by the number of people it takes to make a cup of coffee, then invited to dine with a random local family, but no matter what the situation I was always in the way. Whilst walking around I was perpetually ducking and diving, dodging tuk tuk’s, cattle, navigating the tiniest of spaces where three people were trying to fit through, and always to a siren of car horns. But it really is true, I experienced what can be described as immense kindness when travelling on public trains and at temples. Families offering me their food, welcoming me into their conversations and asking nothing in return. There are few places where tourism is so prevalent and it hasn’t created an artificial barrier. I felt truly humbled, tested, tired and frustrated, but humbled never the less.
The Taj Mahal – I mentioned in a previous blog that when I visited the Taj Mahal, I didn’t expect to be wowed in amazement. I’m fairly well travelled and some of my greatest disappointments; actually no thats the wrong word, anti-climaxes, have been the better known attractions. Example: I grew up fascinated about the Pyramids, and having finally made it there 15 years later; sure I was impressed but there were other temples which left more of an impression. The Taj Mahal struck me instantly, so much so that I sat down near the entrance and just stared at it for almost two hours before moving in for a closer look. It is spectacular and ornate or a whole new level.
Keeping it real – One thing India can never be accused of is being something its not. It’s real, smelly, dirty, there is extreme poverty…but it’s real and what it offers travellers is a realistic view into the country and people that hasn’t come from a Hollywood movie set. That’s what I liked most about India, you can take almost everything at face value and typically it’s a test of your own moral compass as to how you react.
MY PERSONAL NEGATIVES
When I say negatives, it really comes down to aspects of the country which removed me from my comfort zone, this says more about my own limits than the country of India. Sure it’s a tough place to travel around because it tested my patience at every turn, but as cliche as it sounds, as soon as I left I just wanted to go straight back again.
Rags or Riches – There is extreme poverty in India, but it’s also big business and analysing those who are genuinely in need of help is tough. So how did I differentiate between the two? My general rule is I don’t give to beggars as it promotes this as an easy income, I would rather give to a local charity where the money makes a difference such as GIRL INDIA.
I will buy things from street sellers such as chewing gum and bottled water because they make the effort. But..India was different. I bought food for kids and people on the street, why? Because it’s poverty on a whole new level and it’s hard to turn a blind eye. I remember being on an overnight train and struck up a conversation with a family who kindly offered to share their food. Street kids got on and off asking for money, all dirty and wearing rags to which the family waved them off. Then a young boy got on, again very dirty and wearing rags and they all gave him money. When I asked why they gave to him and not the others, they said “Because he is really poor.” In my view they all appeared desperately in need. In Jaisalmer I brought a man a meal after he asked for money, he then proceeded to take a refund for half the price of the meal, and walked away with the cash. The poverty is difficult and beggars are relentless; it was a true test of morality vs. my own personal beliefs.
Forget the Big Apple – Forget New York, the city that never sleeps, if you look at India on a world map, then compare the population with a country of similar size its easy to see why India (1.25 billion) is so busy. In Rajasthan especially, its hard to walk around without being in the way. There were times I went back to my room and just sat in peace under the air-conditioning to get away from the onslaught of people. I didn’t find it relaxing walking around however, it’s interesting and one of the most incredible countries for people watching.
The humble cup of coffee – Things take longer in India, and ‘yes’ might just be the answer to every question, but whatever happens things will work differently. For example, before I gave myself to India and all its quirks I was frustrated by the sheer number of people involved in making a humble cup of coffee. Someone to take the order, someone to boil the water, another to ready the cup, someone to pour the hot water and milk, someone adding sugar, and the original man bringing my coffee to me an hour later. I found that like most things in India, it was a process. Like it or find out the hard way, that’s how things are.
WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO DO?
Firstly, India is massive and there are so many options so I can only share my itinerary with you. This is a great 16 day trip for anyone looking to experience Rajasthan. Once you start, your plans will no doubt change as any good itinerary should, the good news is you’re so well connected by trains and local buses that you really cant go wrong.
WHERE TO LAY YOUR HEAD
India is a country where you don’t get what you pay for, you get more. One thing you won’t want to miss is the chance to stay in Havelis. The term is used to describe a private mansions in India and Pakistan, usually one with historical and architectural significance. Naturally there are still the bargain basement rooms for those on a ridiculous budget but in my opinion, if you don’t opt to pay a little extra and stay in these wonderfully characterful places then you’re missing out. After all, where you choose to stay is the last thing you’ll see at night and the first thing in the morning. The accommodation I recommend is on average 3 star, on average GBP20 per night and centrally located.
Delhi – Hotel Palace Heights
Agra – Amar Yitri Nawas
Jaipur – Traditional Heritage Haveli
Ranthambore National Park Tiger Reserve in Sawai Madhopur – Hotel Ranthambhore National Regency
Udaipur – Mewar Haveli – A Traditional Hotel
Jodhpur – The Kothi Heritage
Jaisalmer – Gorbandh Palace
Bikaner – Hotel Harasar Haveli – The Heritage Hotel
Shekhawati – Hotel Shekhawati
Delhi – Hotel Palace Heights
Great local tour operator
Holiday Moods Adventures is owned by Tejbir and has been in business for many years. I’ve always found his rates (working as a tour operator) to be fair and service without compromise. If you just don’t want the hassle of booking everything yourself, Tejbir is your man and the best bit is he owns a wild camp in the Aravali Hills which you won’t want to miss.
Indian trains come in many standards and is a convenient way to travel around but make sure to do your homework on the standard which suits you.
– First class Air-Conditioned (executive class in Shatabdi type trains is also treated as Ist AC)
– AC 2-tier sleeper (Code:2A)
– First class (Code:FC)
– AC 3 Tier (Code:3A)
– 3E – AC 3 Tier Economy
– AC chair Car (Code:CC)
– Sleeper Class (Code:SL)
– Second Sitting (Code:2S)
Get involved with people on the train, ask questions, share stories about your life and my top tip is to take some sweats to share, it will open doors that might not have presented themselves with a simple act.
If you don’t want to brave the trains, you can always book private transport and a driver through Holiday Moods.
Public vs. private bus – The difference between local buses over the private (or tourist buses) is obviously the standard. The other difference is the private buses will continue to stop every time they’re flagged down for extra income ‘off the books’. It takes longer to travel by private bus I found, but some of the local buses can be quite frightening and it really is a free-for-all. One thing I loved about the buses was at rest stops and the sickly sweet tea. A tip is make sure your iPod is charged before the trip to block out the Bollywood music they blast for hours on end. Ask a hotelier to point you in there right direction or pay one of the hotel workers to go buy you a ticket, they will be more than happy to do so.
Delhi Belly – It’s one of the most common concerns with travellers to India, that being getting Delhi Belly. You know what? If its going to happen it will and there is little you can do to stop it (common sense aside). The salad you eat, plates you eat from, cutlery, glasses, and of course the ice in your drink have the potential to make you sick. My advice, and this is good advice for someone about to reach 100 countries, is eat what you want and avoid the usual suspects like pink meat and ice in drinks. Heck most of the meat is from the market so if you find a street seller, and you can watch your dinner being cooked in front of you, you’re probably safer than in a restaurant. Here is a funny blog you might like to read – The 5 Devils of Travel.
One last thing, India is incredibly photogenic and I snapped off thousands of photos. Unfortunately due to loaning out my hard drive I lost all but a few. Make sure you have a few memory sticks and always smile and ask before taking a picture. A great book to read when your own long bus rides is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, or for something more light-heated, why not read Are Your Experienced by William Sutcliffe.
Happy travelling folks!
If you fancy reading some of my other Asia articles, click the links below:
Getting naked in Japan – you guide to naked bathing
Hiking the Great Wall of China
Wearing India like a badge of honour
Karni Mata – temple of rats
Up early with the birds for Tsukili Fish market in Tokyo
The Travellers Pursuit of Happiness