It was July 2010 when I first entered the massive country that is India. I was only there for a short while; just over a week, but the country left a lasting impression. At the time I didn’t enjoy it much, however, upon reflection, I think India is one of the those countries that, when you look back on your time there you do actually want to return and experience just a little bit more of its hugely diverse culture. Something I don’t think I appreciated as much as I should have.

I went to India back when I was pretty new to the travelling scene, I had not been outside of Europe until the year before when I hitch hiked to Morocco; and even then Morocco had, while retaining some of its traditional charms clearly picked up on some modern western twists. India was a new ball park for me, I simply did not know what to expect and what I had heard prior to going didn’t fill me with confidence. It was also on the tail end of what was possibly one of the most epic periods on my life when I climbed to Everest Base Camp. It was also the longest I’d been outside of the UK and I was getting a little homesick. As such when I was there I wasn’t hugely happy – which may have also been due to the fact I felt ill for most of it; most of our group got some heat related thing sooner or later; but looking back I now appreciate my experiences more and being a bit more of a savvy traveler, I think if I were to go back, I’d enjoy it much more than I did. That said India was always a country I wanted to go too so I’m proud to say I was able to tick it off my bucket list. Will I ever return to India? Undoubtedly I will. The country is massive and boasts the second largest population behind China and with people comes experiences and cultures. I only experienced one small corner of it and there is plenty more to see!

New Delhi
When we first arrived in India, we organised ourselves a prepaid taxi to get us to our hotel. The Hotel Ivory Palace was situated in Karol Bagh which, from memory, took about 40 minutes from the airport. The hotel was not too badly priced at around £14 a night (current rates) and was everything we needed – the rooms are a eclectic mix of styles so I guess there’s something for everyone! The restaurant was on the roof, but I’m 100% not sure about the standard of health and safety in the kitchen or food hygiene practices but we ate there nonetheless and none of us were ill so far as I remember. We spent the afternoon organizing ourselves a tour of the golden triangle and I spent another hour or so trying to get my bank card unlocked. One of the lads in our group was also in India to work for a couple of months and would head off the next day and sadly one the female group members had been feeling under the weather in Nepal and decided to head home early. 9 had become 7. The tour we had arranged would be giving us a week long tour of the Golden Triangle – a showcase of some of Rajasthan’s top attractions. We would be seeing Agra and Jaipur before heading back to New Delhi via Pushkar. All accommodation and transfers were included and we had managed to get it all for £100 each.  By late afternoon most of us were shattered. I think the three weeks in Nepal were catching up on us and we decided to have an early night.

When the “minibus” turned up in the morning we realized that it wasn’t actually a minibus but just a car with a few seats in the boot. The 7 of us piled in regardless to join the driver and we began our long journey to Agra, a trip of nearly 5 1/2 hours, mainly due to the fact that getting out of Delhi was nothing short of a nightmare. On route we stopped briefly in Mathura to see a marble temple. It’s where we were also accosted by a lot of children trying to sell us goods. When we arrived the group split into two hotels. Our one was fantastic, though we had pre-booked this before we left the UK. The others went to accommodation organised by the tour. Ours was expensive by Indian standards (but still pretty cheap by UK) but we didn’t know the going rate for rooms at the time of booking so hedged our bets on this one. The shower was amazing, the water was cooling and it was a shame to get out of it and back into the high 40°s. It was a well needed shower as we had been outside in the Agra Fort for the afternoon, I really enjoyed it. Some of the windows gave excellent views across to the Taj Mahal and some rooms had hundreds of bats hanging from the ceiling. Despite all these amazing views I felt somewhat like we were the tourist attraction with the locals! The girls in particular were accosted for photos with men and women alike. In the end security had to break up the crowd that had gathered around us. It was a bit of a domino effect. When one group saw another asking for photos then they all got in on the action. It was all a bit manic. The dinner when we got back was tasty and we thought well earned! We decided that it might be worth making use of those comfortable beds for a good nights sleep as well. We knew that there was lots to see tomorrow and thought it would be best to see them well rested, especially if we were to get swamped for photos again!
The dawn broke with a thin haze, which may have just been atmospheric or simply pollution, but either way the views up close of the Taj Mahal that morning were sublime. The Taj had been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember and I was stoked to be finally standing in front of her and learning all about it’s construction. We had been approached by a man who offered us a tour. By nature I’m skeptical but everyone else was game so I kinda went along with it. People say I have a patronizing stare and I’m pretty sure this was etched over my face at the time of price negotiations.  I am pleased to say by the end of it I was gladly mistaken. This chap was very pleasant and he showed us all the neat optical illusions that you can see around the gardens. He explained that the four minarets built around the Taj Mahal are designed in such a way that should an earthquake strike, they are likely to fall outwards and away from the main building thus protecting the tomb. The Taj itself was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Muhal and it is where she is buried. In Persian, the name means Crown of Palaces. and it’s easy to see why. It took 20,000 artisans over 20 years to construct it and we learnt that the British, when they had colonized India, built the surrounding gardens and pools, which are now so integral to the Taj Mahal image. I felt a sense of pride that we had helped to develop such an iconic building; that was until I learnt that the British had in the same stroke taken the gold from the building, melted it down and replaced it with bronze. There was also a later emperor who, rather than help his own people wanted to build a “mirror” Taj Mahal across the river made from the rarer and more expensive black marble. He was imprisoned by his own son. The foundations of the “Black Taj” are still visible today.
Just a quick note about the Taj Mahal, there are no photos to be taken inside. It is a mausoleum after all. Photos outside are fine. Take note of the intricate marbling and jewel work which adorns the whole site, it is of exquisite quality and is possibly the best example of Muslim art in India. Shoes are not allowed inside, not even sandals. I was warned the marble outside could get quite warm in the sun. They weren’t joking so be prepared to hop from tile to tile! The guides will take you to shops, I’m guessing it’s a commission based thing. You’re not obligated to buy anything; and on that note there are hawkers everywhere. They are banned from inside the Taj Mahal grounds but outside be prepared for them. Tickets cost me 750 rupees at the time; in today’s money that would be roughly £8.40, so really not a bad price to look at one of the finest wonders of our world! Lastly for some reason soft toys are not allowed in. The female group member that had left early due to illness gave us a Dora the Explorer toy to take photos with at the sites that she sadly would not see. Alas, neither would Dora. We had spent the morning at the Taj and after breakfast we would be heading to Jaipur; which was another 6 hours in the ‘minibus’.

After arriving in Jaipur we were shown to the hotel and then, even though it was pretty late, we met up with a tour guide who took us 40km out of the city to a village-cum-tourist attraction. This is one of those things that I take great issue with. It’s basically a fabricated illusion designed to make you feel like your experiencing something ‘cultural’. For me it is also a double edged sword. Yes it’s great that these people are preserving a part of their culture and have job security at the same time, but I still cannot get my head around the illusion and the fakeness of it all. There was lots of dancing, plenty of food and one stinking headache for me and I was tired and very cranky, so I enjoyed this even less than I would have done normally. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast until we got here so we were all starving as well. I fell asleep in the car on the way back and pulled my trademark party trick off – sleeping with my eyes slightly open.The next day was a killer. We barely stopped and as a result I didn’t really get to enjoy it. We went for a guided tour of the Amber Fort which had very cool views of the city and is worth visiting though it is very hilly and steep; as well as this we visited the Monkey Temple. Just be careful those monkeys can be cheeky! There are also pools there that many locales were swimming in. From there, the rest of the day was a bit of a blur, we saw a semi sunken temple which I cannot remember the name of and went to the market next to the Wind Palace. I still felt rubbish from the night before and again we had not eaten all day. It wasn’t until I finally spoke up and asked about taking a break (baring in mind the temperatures were in the mid to high 40s) that we actually did take time out to enjoy the scenes. We were left to our own devices for dinner and a couple of us opted for a Pizza Hut to see how it compared. It was no different from home, just a lot cheaper! Got picked up by our driver and I’m pretty sure he was drunk.The morning after I decided to have a lie in, as did a couple of others. Those that headed out went to the Pink City to see what wares they could bargain for. We decided to explore what Indian television had to offer. Star World was the go to channel. Sadly it was filled with a lot of High School Musical. When the others arrived back we were late for checkout and when we finally left the hotel we bundled into the minibus for the ride to Pushkar. First though we took a detour to the drivers house. His family were not rich, they lived in a two room house in a densely packed area of similar houses, yet what they lacked in financial means they made up for in hospitality and kindness. The kids loved the camera I had and disappeared off with it. I had a mini panic thinking I’d never get it back, but I did and with some photos of them posing with bikes and a car. We were given food and a real insight into India. This, unlike the village was a scene that not everyone who comes to India sees and it was humbling to see a different way of life. It is important for me to understand and experience these kinds of things and I feel it is something everyone should. It really helps to put your life into some perspective. From there; and well behad fun, I had done it before in Morocco but here it was a bit more exciting as I was offered the reins and I accepted without thinking what that would actually mean. I realized that I wasn’t tethered to anyone else and if my camel which I named Eric (later found out he was called Cobra) decided to run for the hills, I would be unable to refuse. It was both rather scary but exhilarating at the same time. We took a break under the shade of some trees when some local shepherds/musicians started shouting, running and climbing trees in a panic. I use the term musicians lightly as it sounded like the soundtrack to a bad b-movie horror. Turns out there was a couple of rabid dogs that had strayed too close hence all the running and shouting. We only knew they were then when the ‘soundtrack’ stopped and the screaming started. Seems it was less of a soundtrack and more of a complete live action play. The dogs were driven off by the shepherds hurling rocks at them. It made for a sad sight. On a more positive note though we got to race the camels on route back, I was again alone with control of Cobra and every stride of his run was more uncomfortable and crushing than the last. The name of one of the camels in Morocco was Ballcrusher – need I say more? I say race, but Cobra pretty much followed the others. Him and I came in respectable third place. One thing that I found very entertaining is that even as we rode the camels through the streets to get to the desert side of town the shop keepers were still encouraging us to explore their wares! “You want to look?!” We enjoyed a nice meal on the roof and watched the bats swoop over town before getting to bed for our long drive back to New Delhi on the morrow.

New Delhi via way of Jaipur
Today we would be heading back to New Delhi. This would be the longest drive yet and it had been decided that we would stop off in Jaipur to meet with the drivers family again. This time we were at the aunts house which was three rooms instead of two. The women wanted the females in our group to try on their wedding saris which as I understand it is quite a high honor. Us guys were in the other room drinking cheap Indian vodka with our driver and his cousins. Our driver was really quite drunk and it made me a little apprehensive to be honest, the family though were so generous with the food (very spicy but very tasty) and made us feel most welcome. It was a real pleasure to have experienced this side of India. The rest of the drive north was slow. There were many cows in the road (they are sacred in India) so will not get moved on, the Monsoon rains were coming and it was rush hour when we got to Delhi. By the time we got to the hotel it was late so we grabbed some quick food and crashed out. The next day and our final full day was spent touring New Delhi with the driver where we saw the India Gate and Raj Ghat which is a large memorial to Mahatma Ghandi. I was feeling ill so split off from the group to find some shade and got accosted to be photographed with. Goodness knows how bad I look in those! I didn’t get much better so I left early due to the heat (50°c that day!) while others were sick in the street (no joke). The heat throughout India was crazy and after a bit of recovery at the hotel we rounded the evening off with a tuk-tuk ride through the streets of  New Delhi to Connaught Place for a meal at Parikrama; a revolving restaurant. It seemed expensive given a month in Asia but the views were stella! It was a nice chilled end to a hectic week. The only thing to survive was the flight home!So while I may have written “I cannot wait to get home” in my dairy and I may have been a little more cranky than I make out here, deep down I did enjoy India. I think like most people whose blood is infected with the travel bug, even if outwardly I appear to not be enjoying something deep down I actually am, because I love to be somewhere experiencing something different. India was most definitely different and nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be! It certainly helped me to understand myself as a traveler more, so for that I am grateful. I’ve come to realise that toured guides and the like are not my thing. I prefer to experience things at my own pace. So until next time India!
Cover Photo: The Taj Mahal, Agra.

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