You know in a restaurant when you’ve been eyeing up the dessert on another table and thinking abou it all through your meal only to have the person next to you say, “Oh you want the cheesecake? I’ve had it here before, it’s not that nice”. Travel is a bit like that. There is always someone who has been to the place you are going to next and has an opinion on it and it has been no different for me with India. Several people told me they hadn’t really enjoyed India but I tried not to listen to them and neither should you if you are travelling. Their trip is their trip and your trip is yours. I knew that doing India as a tour would be a very different experience to them doing it on their own and I couldn’t wait.
Yet still I left Sri Lanka a little apprehensive about the journey ahead. I like doing tours partly because you can get such a mixed bag of people but there is also always a question of how well the group will gel. I needn’t have worried. As our CEO wisely told us on the first night “Don’t panic” and he was right. I had no reason to panic about India or the people I’ve met along the way; I had the best time in India right from start to finish.
Day 13 – Arriving in India the night before had been like hitting the ground running. There were four white lines on the high way but there were at least five lanes of cars, though it was hard to tell. I saw at least four different men pissing in the streets in the first hour of being in India. People walked in the road or gathered at the curb side round food stalls, scooping rice and naan into their mouths with their hands, cars honked incessantly and cows wandered freely, chewing on the rubbish that was everywhere. I started to worry that what everyone had told me was right, that India would overwhelm me, dragging me under by the sheer volume of people and things happening around me.
As seems to be the case when travelling though, meeting Cat the next day saved me. I wandered into the breakfast room probably looking lost and confused and she called me over to sit with her straight away. She was part of my tour group too and had already been in India for several weeks (and if you want to read more about her adventures check them out here). Chatting to her over our paranthas (a flat bread a little like a pancake) I was starting to feel better already. Later I met Kate, her new roommate and another person on the tour, and we set out together to figure out the Metro system and find our way to the Red Fort.
The Red Fort was a perfect respite from the noise and crowds outside the red walls, which seemed to stretch on forever. We walked between archways, with waves like bite marks, and around beautiful marble buildings. Our outing was short though as we had to get back for our first group meeting with our CEO (Chief Experience Organiser). After standing in a queue for tokens in rush hour for 20 minutes and walking in the wrong direction when we first left the station(I’m glad I’m not the only one who does this) and me gashing my knee on a number plate as I squeezed between two cars, we made it back just in time for the meeting. Our CEO was Dinesh, but we were to call him Dino, and I think we all felt instantly reassured that he would be a great guide, calm and focussed but also a lot of fun. Our first impression turned out to be correct.
Day 14 – Knock knock knock. I was woken by the banging on our door and stood confused and bleary eyed as a hotel staff member told me it was time to go. It was 4:55am. “Is this our wake up call?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “They are waiting in the taxis for you”. That’s when I realised the annoying noise in the room was the alarm that hadn’t woken me and my lovely roommate Olivia up. We raced around and made it downstairs in ten minutes flat where everyone else was already packed away in the taxis with their bags.
Luckily they didn’t leave without us and we had our first experience of an Indian train ride on our way to Agra. It would turn out to be one of the simpler train journeys of the trip. The seats were fairly comfy, not too crowded and we even got served breakfast (although it wasn’t much more than warm bread).
Once we had sorted out the hotel and bags it was off to Agra fort. It was even more stunning than the Red Fort and seeing as we only saw about 25% of this huge complex of palace rooms, archways and gardens I have a feeling we rushed the Red Fort and didn’t see all there was to see. Agra Fort more than made up for it though and we even got a glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the King’s quarters where he locked himself away for 8 years after his beloved wife died. She made him promise three things if she should ever die: 1. That he would take care of their children, 2. That he would never marry again and 3. That he would build her a beautiful mousileam. So there he stayed in his palace, grieving, looking out at the balcony to see the Taj Mahal’s walls slowly rising as his third promise was fulfilled.
In the evening we got to see the tomb up close and I was surprised by just how impressed I was. It is stunning. The symmetry, the fine details you notice as you get closer, the cool dark inside with the lattice work style stone to let in the bare minimum of light, the gardens and the two mosques that stand guard either side are all beautiful. I think you can only ever understand how it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World if you see it up close. I was blown away. And seeing it at sunset only made the experience that much more special.
Day 15 – No rest for the wicked, after all this is a yolo tour and G Adventures seem determined to cram in as much as possible, so we jumped on a local bus to Jaipur. We all had very low expectations for the bus ride but other than being a bit rundown it was not much different from most bus journeys.
On arrival in Jaipur we discovered we were staying in a pretty family run hotel called the Jaipur Inn. Spiralling staircases led to a couple of rooms with larger balconies and the rooftop offered great views across the Pink City and also hosted Bollywood dance lessons and yoga classes.
We set off on an orientation walk, an insightful way to get a flavour of the new place we arrived at. For the first time I saw the canvas sacks of many coloured spices, grains of all shapes and sizes and so many bags of dried chilliest the spice caught in the back of my throat just from walking past. Dino bought us flower garlands and draped them round our necks and let us try some Indian sweets. Most looked more like spices than sweets but some were multi coloured and tasted of aniseed. We ended our walk on the top of a roof by a small temple, looking down over the hubbub below us.
Soon we were back in the middle of it again, taking rickshaw rides to the cinema. Olivia and I greeted our driver and climbed in the back, “This Indian ferrari!” He promised us to our delight. “Indian helicopter!” And it certainly felt like we were flying, racing down the roads despite the traffic and through the market stalls, tinsel glittering above our heads, decorations for Diwali.
The cinema turned out to be this old theatre that opened in 1976 and had a gorgeous interior of huge chandeliers and meringue like piping along the walls. I got my popcorn fix and we settled in for the 3 hour (!!!) Bollywood cinema experience! We saw M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story a film about the famous cricket player and I was surprised (but also a tad disappointed) to find there was no singing or dancing. It was mostly in Hindi though so we struggled to keep up at times. Strangely though all the English bits seemed to be the romantic scenes and every time they cropped up the whole cinema would erupt into cheers and wolf whistles! It was great!
Day 16 – In case we hadn’t seen enough forts yet we went to the Amber Fort, another amazing palace complex.
The only part I didn’t enjoy about the fort was seeing elephants giving rides to the top. They trudged back and forth monotonously in the heat of the day. Their tusks had been cut and used to make ivory bangles and other trinkets. I was glad that G Adventures do not encourage their group members to take rides, especially when the walk to the top is no more than ten minutes.
In the afternoon we went to see block printing at a silk shop, a trade Jaipur is famous for. I could see why when we saw how carefully two men were stamping a long stretch of cloth by hand, lining up first one colour and then the next as they built up the pattern with different stamps. A few of us got to have a go and one even got a lovely elepphant print on his t-shirt.
Once we had seen the process of how the fabric is made it was time to do some shopping! We munched on samosas and sipped a cup of masala chai as the owner spread his wares before us, illiciting many oohs and ahs. It was the perfect opportunity to buy gifts and they could even arrange to have it sent home (though I of course went for a more complicated option as you’ll read about in a later post, so I hope my mum appreciates her new tablecloth). I couldn’t resist a new outfit for myself either and chose a lovely traditional tunic.
One of the things that makes a trip like this unique is moments along the way you weren’t expecting, like Riley’s birthday. He said he didn’t really celebrate his birthdays back home but we showed him how its done. Dino got him a cake (most of which ended up on his face) and we crammed onto mine and Olivia’s balcony for the first party and real ice-breaker of the trip. I think it was the first time we all properly let our guards down and got to know each other, making for a great night and proper start to the tour.
Day 17 – Despite the hangovers we managed to drag ourselves out of bed for a morning yoga lesson. Suddenly the incessant beeping seemed a million miles away and in the cool of the early morning our instructor led us through some simple but revitalising poses.
Later, when we hopped into the back of the 4×4’s that were to take us to Tordi Sagar, the vibe was a little different. We definitely had the party bus as our driver blasted school disco classics like Venga Bus and Barbie Girl. It kept us going until Tordi Sagar though and when we arrived I could tell we were going back to some peace and quiet, not to mention we were practically staying in a palace!
Tordi Sagar is a much smaller village than anywhere we had been before. In the evening Dino took us on a walk through the farmland, showing us how the people here still live quite a rural, traditional life. As the sun went down we sat and looked out over the lake, sipping Chai and reflecting on our trip so far. We had begun with the overwhelming chaos of Delhi and now there was not a car horn to be heard. The tour is aptly named Uncover India as it definitely felt like we were getting under the grit of this country to see what it is really like.
In the evening I took a moment to myself to start putting together the video or this trip and that’s when I really started to appreciate just how much we had already done and how much there was still to come. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and I could see why some of the people who warned me off India might feel the way they did, but I was in a beautiful place, surrounded by beautiful people and I was so glad to be where I was.
But the adventure was just beginning…