During my travel through South-East Asia, I met a lot of people and what do you do as a traveler? You share travel stories. You talk about the countries you have been to and give your opinion about what is nice and what is not. One of the countries I heard so many bad stories about was India. People did not like the food, they did not like the people and they thought it was dirty. So after all these stories, I thought India was the last country on earth I would ever go to.
Not even a year later I was sitting in a plane that took me straight to Mumbai and this time I was not alone but with my best friend. We were going to travel around India and somehow she tricked me into agreeing with this plan. As a person from Holland, walking around in the streets of Mumbai feels like a whole different world but I was surprised in a very good way. It turns out India is not as the picture, people drew in my head. Yes, if you go to the slums or some suburbs you will find a lot of garbage but the centre is very nice. There are street stalls everywhere and they sell amazing food and delightful drinks. One of my favorite moments in Mumbai was eating a Vada Pao on the street, which is a spicy vegetarian hamburger, and drinking a glass of fresh sweet Sugar Cain.
Until 1947, India was a British colony and a lot of buildings are still a memory of that time. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is one of them for example. It’s a beautiful piece of Victorian architecture and nowadays still one of the busiest train stations in the world. Every day, a proximally two million people hop on and off the train here and it’s interesting to watch this scene for a while. Another memory of the British presence is the so called Gateway to India. It’s a big arch next to the ocean and ironically the place where the British left India. Looking at it took me back to past times and it was not hard to imagine how things must have been.
Soon we realized that everything in India is an adventure. Tasting all the different food, sitting in the bus not knowing where exactly it is going to and just watching daily life. There are so many people. I remember we had an appointment for dinner with someone, the second day we were in Mumbai. To go to the restaurant, we had to take the train. It was around six pm and it started to be rush hour and for us, not used to fight with our elbows to claim our place, it seemed impossible get on the train. People were actually hanging outside the wagons. But some people are very helpful and thanks to them we managed eventually. Funny thing about Indians is that they answer questions with a sort of a head wiggle. It can mean yes, no or maybe, so sometimes it is a bit hard to figure out what they mean. Also, if you want to know where you can find a place and they do not know, they just want to be polite and send you to one direction, even if it is the wrong one. Just keep smiling and see it as a nice opportunity to discover more of the city.
Probably the most famous person from India is Gandhi. He had lived quite a while in an ashram in Ahmadabad and to walk a bit in his footsteps, we wanted to see this place. We thought Ahmadabad would be a more quiet place after Mumbai but it is also a big bustling city with a lot of Rickshaws on the streets and the occasional elephant. After walking around in this city for a while, Gandhi’s ashram was a calming breath. We saw his house, the place where he wove fabrics and the ground where he prayed. Some parts of India are Hindu and other parts are Muslim. Of course there are a lot of other religions but these ones are the biggest. Ahmadabad for example is Muslim and just a little bit outside the city we found the Sidi Saiyad mosque. We spend a couple of hours in this serene place watching the adults doing their rituals and the children play.
We didn’t plan to go to Udaipur in the first place but we wanted to visit a smaller city and I’m so glad we did. Udaipur is amazing and very beautiful. Our arrival was magical with a ride in a perfectly clean rickshaw and some nice lounge music coming out of the speakers. We found a great hotel room in a fairytale havali (old Indian house) with a great view over the city. The sun was setting and we could see the silhouettes of the droplet shaped towers of the palaces. It was like the thousand-and-one-night story and it was not hard to imagine a guy flying around on a carpet. Udaipur is build around a big lake and in the lake you will find the Lake Palace which is used in the James Bond movie Octopussy. So it all looks very romantic in this city of palaces. We visited one and we were amazed by its size, beauty and wealth. There are so many rooms decorated with the most beautiful things and there are lush gardens and terraces with detailed mosaic.
A funny story about the Indian mentality was the time we wanted to drink a beer on the roof terrace. Overall, you won’t find a lot of alcohol in India but we wanted to give it a try. We asked one of the waiters if they had any and he said no. The moment we wanted to leave he came up to us and whispered in my ear: ‘yes, we have beer but no license so we need to serve it in a teapot’. So after 10 minutes pretending that we were waiting for the water to boil, we were zipping our beer from a teacup with the pot in front of us. Later on, it was Hindu new year so we celebrated a colorful evening with the locals while the women were dressed in their beautiful saris.
Jodhpur was next on the agenda. It is also called the blue city because it looks…well, blue. They painted the roofs of the buildings blue as a sort of mosquito repellent. At least that is what they told me. Jodhpur is build against a big hill with a fortress on top. The fortress looks so big compared to the city that things look a bit out of proportion. The Maharaja and his family still lives in the fortress but a part of it is open for public as well. Inside you can take a peak in the lifestyle and the wealth of an Indian king. And when you watch the view from the fortress you can see why they call Jodhpur the Blue City. The blue roofs are very much in contrast with the brown and sandy environment. Besides the fortress there is not a lot to do in Jodhpur but the atmosphere is quite relaxed. They do have a big market in front of the clock tower where they sell colorful fabrics, spices and all kind of vegetables and it is fun to look around and share a cup of cardamom tea with one of the salesmen.
Going further up north into Rajasthan we found ourselves more and more in the desert. After a sandy train ride we arrived in Jailsamer which is also called the Golden City because of its honey/golden glow during sunset. Before I continue with my story I want to tell some things about the trains in India first. India has an excellent railway system and we used it a lot as transportation. If we had no other option, we took the sleeper bus but those rides where so bumpy and uncomfortable that we tried to avoid it as much as we could. I mean, we preferred to arrive stirred, not shaken.
So the train it was. Now there are different kind of classes you can choose from. The cheapest class is probably something you never want to go for, only if you want to give yourself a hardcore experience. You get no seat assigned so it is just a matter of who comes first. Chances are you will not get a seat and it is going to be a long, long 19 hours for example. In the first, second and third class you will find more luxury. You will have a bed, they give you some sheets and you will probably freeze to death during the night because the air-conditioning is colder than my fridge.
Another option is the sleeper class and it has a little bit of everything. There is a bed assigned to your name and there is a window which you can open and close instead of the air-conditioning. It is not super clean but in our opinion much nicer than the rest of the options and once you give in to it, it becomes amusing to watch all those people and to see what they are bringing. They do throw all their garbage out of the window though. I remember me saving up my empty teacups with the intention to throw them away later. The lady at the opposite of me looked at them and asked me why I didn’t throw them out of the window. I said that I didn’t thought it was good to throw the garbage just in the nature or on the streets. Then she poked the guy next to him, told him what I said and they both started laughing at me. So to be honest as well, you need to get used to the different mentality in order to keep seeing things positive. Eventually we spend a lot of hours in these trains because we traveled so much and when I think back, so many things happened around us. It was always quite an experience and it took us everywhere, safe and well.
But back to Jailsamer now. Jailsamer is a city and a fortress in the Thar desert, close to the border with Pakistan. Inside the fortress there is a maze of small alleys and you can still choose to sleep within the walls but it is recommended to sleep in the town around. The big attraction in Jailsamer is a camel trip through the desert including an overnight sleep in the sand dunes under the bright stars. A trip like this can be very touristy but we had found a guy who took us on the roads less travelled so we could enjoy the purity of the desert. My friend and I left early in the morning with two guides and each our own camel which we could ride ourselves. Sitting on a camel is nice and high so you have a good view. The desert was surprisingly green and the camels took us through nature, pass small desert villages counting only a few houses made of clay while eagles circled high in the sky.
In the afternoon when it was too hot we rested in the shade. We cooked lunch on a fire, cleaned the dishes with sand and it was not hard to get in touch with this desert life. When the sun was closer to the horizon we rode to a place in the sand dunes where we would spent the night. While the sun was setting down we reached the sand dunes and it was the perfect moment with the beautiful gold light and the long shadows. The camels could rest, we could eat and soon we were covered by a blanket of stars with a crackling fire, being the only source of light. Wow, a night in the desert is magical! For the first time in my life I heard complete silence and all those stars…all those stars. We got up before sunrise and the temperature was nice and cool. Some of the camels were still sleeping and you could find the trails of small lizards everywhere around. The rest of the day we rode back on our camels to Jailsamer with another great experience to remember.
The big mistake during this trip was going to Pushkar. The travel guides wrote great stories about this and used words like “it is like a lotus flower in the lake”. It was then when we discovered that travel guides are nothing more than an opinion. Sure, if you like to be chased by a pack of dogs in the middle of the night or if you are really fond of weird junkies and the things they take, I would say go for it. But we were only happy to leave again.
The next stop was Agra, where you can find one of the most famous buildings of the world, the Taj Mahal. Build as a tomb for the love of his life by one of the Maharajas, a symbol of love and grief. Pure in symmetry, in marble and in white, decorating the shore of Agra’s river Yamuna. I was very looking forward to admire this building and I could already see the first glimpse from the roof terrace of my hotel. We left the Taj Mahal for the next day and explored Agra for a bit. To be fair, the city looks quite nice but there is not a lot to do. There is a big fortress which you can visit but after all the other ones in Rajasthan, it was just another fortress. So we killed the day by eating and sitting on a terrace and prepared ourselves for an early morning.
The Taj Mahal is at its best during sunrise and sunset and since sunrise was our only option, we didn’t want to miss it. Before the sun came up, we were waiting in front of a red gate to enter and see this world wonder. It was like entering a whole different world. Everything was so clean and green and beautiful. We were right in time to see the first sunrays hit the white marble and it was wonderful. You don’t realize how special this building is before you are standing in front of it, close enough to touch it. The symmetry and the details are great and so is the location. The maharaja who gave the order to build it never saw it finished because he was taken prison by his son and died later. Now he’s resting there as well, next to his love. I feel really privileged that I have seen this magical place.
Varanasi was also one of these places I definitely wanted to see but it did not really meet my expectations. It is the most holy place in India and attracts Hindu pilgrims from all over the country. It is the place where people die and get cremated along the shore of the holy river Ganges. It might be a very important place for a lot of people but if you don’t see it with Hindu eyes, it might just be a dirty place. It is a city, concentrated along the river with a maze of small alleys. In this maze you can find a lot of shops, restaurants and hotels but also a lot of garbage and cows who are not afraid of shitting and peeing everywhere. Oh, and did I mention the smell?
But ok, some things are interesting as well. The whole ritual from cleaning a dead body in the Ganges until burning it on a pile of wood is something I had never seen before. Then again, breathing in this dead body through smoke is something I had never done before either. During the cremation there was a drunk guy trying to pick up a fight with everyone including me and there was a boy who was brushing his teeth. Surprisingly, the Ganges did not look as dirty as people always tell in stories and in the night it looked nice because of floating candles. Although it was not my favorite place, I am not going to say that you can skip this place. There is a lot to see and when I think back of it, it is quite an experience. Even if you don’t like rats.
Calcutta was not on our list before but during the trip we decided that we wanted to go there too. It is the former capital city and one of the biggest cities in India. After we got out of the train we first had to cross a river to get to the center. Just to be sure that we had train tickets for the date we wanted to leave, we bought them right away. While waiting for them we were pretty hungry and that is when we discovered Calcutta’s most delicious street food, the eggroll. I thought I could eat them forever. Calcutta is a very relaxed city. You can eat good food, the people are friendly and they even have a very convenient subway system. It is easy to navigate and there are a couple of nice things to see. For example the Victoria Monument. It is a beautiful white building facing a big grassy square. Inside the building is a museum about the colonial history of India and you can walk around in the gardens outside.
Calcutta is also the city where Mother Theresa lived for a long time. You can visit the place where she did all her charity and where she is resting in her tomb now. I remember we went there early in the morning and we had some trouble finding it. We ended up in some back alleys and that is actually the best memory I have of Calcutta. We could watch life the way it was for most Indians. Groups of boys and men were washing themselves on the streets and preparing for the day. People were cutting all kinds of meat, sorting their vegetables and there was just so much going on. We did not have much time but there is a lot more to do. There are a couple of museums and people told us the botanic gardens are nice.
Our next journey by train was a long one. It took 19 hours to get to Vijayawada but luckily, we managed to sleep a lot. It was my birthday that day and when I came out of the bathroom in our hotel, the room was full of balloons. Vijayawada is different from all the places we saw before. There are no tourists. Well, maybe you see one by accident but chances are low. Because of this, people seem very honest and that is also nice for a change. There is not a lot to do in this city but the atmosphere is very nice and calm. In the center there is one street where it all happens and especially in the evening it is very nice to walk there. They have relatively modern shops but you will also find street vendors with fresh fruit walking around. Funny thing about the food is the fact that no matter what you order, it all taste sweet in a way. I also remember we ordered eggs with toast in the morning. Obviously they did not understand us because after a while they came back with two brown eggs. They were boiled first and I think they fried them after or something. Toasted eggs!
We heard some good stories about a place called Hampi so we went there after Vijayawada. Hampi is located a bit more in the south of India within the ruins of Vijayanagara, an old Hindu empire. The landscape is one I have never seen before. It is so green and lush. Banana plantations are everywhere and it is such a difference after the dusty north. The hills make the landscape a bit surreal because they are big piles of rocks and it looks like a big hand spread them around randomly. The town itself is a bit touristy but everywhere around it, you will find the ruins of the old empire. Temples, big market squares and ruins of the old royal residence. It is great to go on a walk and explore all these places. The place is interesting and absolutely beautiful.
Our last destination was Goa. We had saved the best for last and it was time to relax on a tropical palm beach. All the traveling had been pretty intense so we could really use it. I remember how happy how was when I saw the beach. A perfect beach with a lot of palm trees and nice colorful bungalows hiding in their shade. I smelled the salty air, heard the sound of the waves and felt the sand between my toes. This is life, I thought. Goa used to be a Portuguese colony and is now a small province on the west coast of India. There are a couple of beaches were you can stay with each their own charm. It is also very famous for their typical trance parties which attract a lot of people. We were there at the end of the season and the parties were over but we did not care. We stayed on Palolem beach which is considered as the most beautiful one. We had a nice bungalow in a palm garden and we had nothing to wish for. You could spot dolphins right from the beach, the atmosphere was very relaxed and every night we had fresh fish from the barbeque. If you want you can also visit some old colonial towns but just the beach was enough for us. It was the perfect way to end our trip. From Mumbai we flew back to Holland with a head full of new memories.
India is a country of extremes. The trip had been intense, colorful and chaotic, bizarre and special, beautiful and confronting. The country is poor and the people have to fight for their existence but the richer it is on culture and diversity. India is unique and a country you have to experience once in your life.