It’s taken me a wee while to pull this post together. India is crazy on a whole new scale. It’s different to anywhere else we’ve been, busier, dirtier, stranger – there’s no real sense of familiarity here.
Flying in from Egypt was strange, beautiful planes, terrible airports. We were fairly exhausted when we arrived, I’d booked a nicesh hotel to start with, I wasn’t quite ready for the 500 rupees a night backpacker budget that we’re working with now.
The rich, multi-layered smell hits you first, within the hot soupy air. Then the sound of constant horns. People seem almost oblivious to the constant loud screeches, and the driving styles visually crazy, but from the confines of a car fine.
The car that picked us up wasn’t air conditioned – outside of the fairly dry heat of Egypt & Jordan we were melting. The driver had hooked up a small fan even that little airflow helped.
We stayed in the backpacker district of Parharganj, which felt like the epitome of city madness in itself. A riot of colour and smells both good and bad, our white, clean, new hotel felt like an oasis from the start.
We had a bit of a rest before getting out and about, when we really started to get a feel for India. We got into an autorickshaw – similar to a tuktuk if you’ve ever been to Thailand. “Connaught Place” – at least that’s where we thought we were going. Tired and jetlagged, we were taken to an “International Tourist Bureau”. We went in, and exited immediately.
This is a known scam, taking tourists to fake tourism shops to tie them into overly expensive tours, bus rides and train journey. We were even followed by our rickshaw driver, “No, you go in there. International tourist”. We just walked, trying to find Connaught Place, and a familiar brand – Starbucks, appeared like sun on the horizon after the rain. Two cold coffees, and we ventured out again. Accosted.
“Where are you from, what’s your name, how long have you been in India for, where are you going now”
A constant set piece that just doesn’t stop. Men pushing us, following us, trying to get us into rickshaws to go to the “Tourist Bureau”. A man with “ID” saying “Here you need to go this way”. I just kept my mouth shut, ignoring the constant questions and push to get to a tourist bureau is the best way to handle it.
For a first timer, it’s absolutely bewildering. Exhausting. We walked to a park just to sit, take it all in and relax.
Trying to find food can be harder than you think. Places have everything in Hindi (obviously), but even the English names often aren’t familiar. There’s few restaurants as we’d know them, and feeling new to India, and conscious of our potentially sensitive tummies we didn’t dare start with street food.
We finally found a place that looked busyish, was a bright, clean looking restaurant, and it had an English menu. And cheap prices. 2 x Masala Dosa (think a big flat crepe with spicy potato in the middle) & Fresh Lime Sodas, and we were feeling like we’d climbed to the top of a mountain.
We ate for two for less than £5. It is unbelievable how cheap you can eat here, and when it’s good – the food is amazing.
Delhi passed in a similarish blur. Will (a friend from NZ) joined us after a few days, so we moved from our lovely comfy bed, to a 2 bed place deep in Parharganj (rather than on the edge) in a narrow alleyway. Past a public urinal. Past several sleeping stray dogs (they’re in their hundreds here. No cats tho). Past the guy who always said “G’Day Cobba”. Out into messy, busy Delhi. We’d get almost nervous leaving our room to venture back out to get constantly harassed, and find something new, and quiet.
We saw the Museum, RajPath & India Gate (think Arc de Triomphe in Paris) Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, Red Fort, Lodhi Garden, Akshardham Temple… Trying to get around on a mixture of auto Rickshaw and air-conditioned metro.
The sites, while grand, are in some ways disappointing. There’s rubbish everywhere, in the gardens, right through the Red Fort. In fact, the Red Fort is in such incredibly bad condition, it’s not even worth seeing. Places like Akshardham temple were quieter than others (and beautiful, the elephant stories on the base are beautifully carved and interesting!), and going to Delhi just in festival season made everywhere even busier.
The day we went to the Red Fort is the busiest I have ever seen anywhere in my life. Getting past people is a huge effort; the streets are full of autorickshaws, cycle rickshaws, cars, sandwiched together, no lanes, everything at all angles, nothing but horns blasting. The street was essentially stopped as we tried to move through, trying to avoid Pan spit, cow poo and stray dogs wherever you step. I got squished by a car, he drove into me while I was crossing, pedestrians don’t have right of way as much here, and vehicles don’t move around you (as they do in Vietnam).
Heading back to the hotel and backpackers always came with a sense of relief, quiet after nothing but noise for hours. Passing through Parharganj smells like a mixture of piss, incense, occasional cow (or oxen, with their strange lumpy backs), marigold flowers and exhaust fumes. The smell of India seeps into your skin, I exude spice in my sweat, and I can’t seem to shake sandalwood from my hair.
We had fresh mango juice every morning, tentatively tried pakora and samosa from the street side, tried to find restaurants that were simple enough to order from or at least we could have a beer.
It’s too hot to eat a lot, so we’ve found ourselves often having 2 meals a day, it’s just easier.
My clothes while perfect for Africa, aren’t quite right for here. . The itchy wool of icebreaker is awful in 35deg + humidity. Having knees out means nothing but stares. I need to be more covered, finding skirts and floaty trousers in Parharganj market has helped, but shirts are impossible to find. After a day out everything has white powdery lines from salty sweat.
Sending post was a bizarre experience, gifts & things for ourselves we’d bought from Africa & Egypt to try and get home. Post offices are few & far between. We went to the main one, thinking it should be a relatively straight-forward experience…
We had nothing to pack our items in, so were directed to a kiosk outside, across the road. For a fee, these gentlemen helped us wrap our items in cardboard, then sewed them in linen, also supplying relevant customs forms as well.
Getting to post was even more of a challenge, no credit card facilities (yet I was continually offered card facilities in most shops in Parharganj!) so Dan had to run to find an ATM 10 mins before closing. Of course he was given the wrong directions…
Thankfully he got back and even though the counter had closed they still let us pay and delivered tracking tickets. Tracking tickets that don’t say a thing. Some said when we checked online “scanned delhi”. Some said nothing at all. It’s been a nervous wait as things were delivered.
I only hope the large box gets to mum & dads, I’m not so worried about scarves and a few bits and pieces for family, more about my handwritten journal – covering 3 months in Africa.
The best thing we did in Delhi was a food tour. Through old Delhi, trying Lassi in terracotta pots, dal & aloo (lentil & potato) samosa and kachori, kulfi still made the traditional way with salted ice (no freezer) with the most incredible rich flavours of Pomegranate & rosewater, saffron & pistachio. The massive spice market – 3 storeys of chillies – enough to make you sneeze. Cycle rickshaws through Chandni Chowk, we were the only western tourists we saw. My favourite were Pani Puri, small puffs filled with cubes of potato served with spicy sour water (tamarind and chilli) eaten as a snack to cool you down throughout India.
One of the most interesting parts was a visit to a Sikh temple, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. They feed hundreds of people for free a day, and we toured their volunteer kitchen – walking barefoot in front of huge woks for making curry, thousands of servings at a time.
Tragedy hit on the food tour – after a few issues we’d had with Dan’s camera we got fixed in Knysna, South Africa it finally gave up with a stuck shutter. Thankfully we both have the same camera, so I’ve given up my camera to Dan. Sadly this means no more pics from me (except what I’m occasionally getting on my iphone). ☹
After a visit to the real international tourist bureau to finalise our PNR numbers (and crazily, everything is done by hand. Each booking number is hand written into a folio, which were copied by hand on to our ticket) we were looking forward to getting back out and about, travelling by train to Agra…
Of course there’s a scam as soon as you enter the train station. Someone in plain clothes demanding to see your ticket, telling you that you don’t have the right info, that you need to go urgently to “international tourist office in Connaught place”. And for Will, “WS means you’re on waitlist” when questioned “Window seat”. I said that’s completely incorrect we have the right detail “Are you questioning me? Are you questioning MY India railways?” “We have PNR numbers, we know this is our platform” and we walked off.
Our train was okay – on time, breakfast available. The trains are crazy. It looks like they overbook the cheap tickets, people leaning out windows, out doors, I’m so glad we’re in relative comfort as well as with AC.
Agra is relatively small, but such a huge tourist point, it still feels busy. When we were there it was a holiday week, meaning there were hundreds and hundreds of local tourists, rather than international ones. The streets packed tight, hundreds of rickshaws vying for business.
We stayed in a basic guest house/backpackers with a fan, AC that worked occasionally and WiFi in our room.
We’re taking it easy through India, rather than a day here a day there we’re staying in places for a few days at a time, with 4 days in Agra. We still managed to fill them.
Our first evening included a nearly sunset, side view of the Taj – across the river. Busy with streams of people circling in both directions, with street kids next to us tugging at our arms for attention. As with a lot of these World Heritage sites and other tourist places we’ve been across the world, I’m disappointed in the lack of support and infrastructure put back into the nearby communities. The village we past had no sanitation, no water, no housing. How must it feel to see tourists pass by every day spending money that never trickles back down.
Feeling a little tired of fighting through traffic and people, we ate at where we were staying the whole time we were in Agra. It was just easier; the food was good, breakfasts included (with a fantastic masala chai – spicy tea).
For drinks however, we decided to take it up a notch, and headed out to the Oberoi hotel for a few margaritas. We never stay 5 star. If you’re just sleeping somewhere, we’re of the opinion that a bed is a bed is a bed – and if you’re paying £300 per night, what’s included that makes that so much more expensive than our £5 place. For a drink however, count me in.
I had a fair few margaritas, the boys had a mix, from gin & tonic to old fashioned to various others. It was so nice for a change to be somewhere quiet, relaxed (except for the Indian EDM blasting through tinny speakers throughout the complex).
The walk to the Taj at dawn, making our way in the dark with a small torchlighting our way. Huge bats flying through the air, snacking on insects before dawn. Not sure why but I found them completely disturbing, and was glad as light started to filter through and there were less and less of them.
We didn’t have to queue long for tickets and then entry, and being there first thing in the morning before the heat and crowds was definitely the best choice.
The Taj? Sure it’s a big white building not too dissimilar to a wedding cake. The semi-precious inlaid stones are lovely, and the gardens, simple – but I think I was again disappointed by the amount of rubbish. Plastic all through the waterways/canals, bins tipped over with rubbish streaming everywhere.
More amazing was Fahtepur Sikri, about an hour from Agra (2.5 hours with a driver who didn’t go above 60kmh. “Tourist Speed” is something we’ve started to notice throughout India).
Sadly we got scammed a bit, but we were all a bit tired, and the mix of aggression that you get when you spot a scam and push back makes it a tiring experience.
We’d booked a car through our hotel, who drove us not to the entrance, but to another “International Tourist Office”. For 600 rupees (£6) we got a guide and transport. Smelling a rat I said no, got up to walk away – similar to last time, our English speaking liaison got aggressive “you can’t walk, you don’t have transport, you can’t go to the palace”. Sometimes you lose more arguing so we just shook our heads and went with it. In the end we were out £3, but it’s just enough to feel you’re constantly being scammed everywhere; you can’t trust anyone in these places.
Fatehpur Sikri is a palace complex, with areas built for 3 wives, one Hindu, one Christian and one Muslim, so the architecture was a mix of all three. More art and colours in the walls had stayed within this site – I think I enjoyed it more than anything we’d previously seen.
The most famous feature is a giant gate & beautiful white mausoleum, separate to what we’d paid to see, is open to the public. Sigh next scam.
We were taken out behind the sculpture to a man in front of some cloth. We are showed “ID”. And told these cloths you buy for babies. And only by buying this cloth can you see the mausoleum. First it’s 1,500 for the first one, 1,000 for the second one and 500 for the last one. Then you’re told dependent on what you buy you get to tie wishes to the mausoleum. I stood up and walked off, saying this is a scam I want no part of. The fabric wasn’t even the type of cloth for babies, not even scarf material. No detail on the charity, at least 15 more people looking like they do the same thing.
Our “guide” followed me – “Don’t you like charity?” “Not when it’s an obvious scam. I’m not stupid”. He didn’t say much else, and rushed us to the gate, trying to walk us past the mausoleum. I walked off wanting to see it for myself. Of course you didn’t need to buy anything to see it.
As we walked out he asked if we enjoyed the tour. Seeing he’d scammed us for £4 (not an official guide – we could have got one at the entrance) and tried to scam us for more I said “No being scammed is not right – I want no part of this”. He never responded.
It’s hard as you think “Oh it’s only £4” but it still sours your experience here, you feel like no one can be trusted, you can’t speak to anyone, everyone is out to get you. Couple that with being stared at constantly (I’m primarily looking at my feet as I hate that they wont look away) – it’s just not a nice experience.
We got stuck in the most ludicrous traffic jam on the way back, cars were stretching 5, 6 lanes across the narrow road, trying to push into any gap. You’d move forward a metre and a motorbike would zoom into any allowable space, making it worse.
People got out of their cars trying to direct traffic. Trying to make space for themselves. Eventually we got free,
While we loved where we stayed, we were pleased to get back on the road to Jaipur.
Our train to Jaipur was a similar time, early morning. The train was a sleeper, so 4 berths to an area, with a thin curtain separating the corridor. So no, nothing like the veritable bliss of “The Darjeeling Limited”.
If you’re on the top bunk, it’s below freezing. If you’re on the bottom is warm, but the beds are quite short so your feet can hangover the end, getting bumped as people walk past.
Everyone wants to get the most of everything in India. Queuing doesn’t exist in the same way. In traffic everyone pushes through rather than waiting for space. There’s a culture of pushing to get whatever you can, however you can; and it’s the same in the trains.
There was a man in the top bunk when we arrived, sitting with the sheets and blankets. We said our seat numbers, he nodded and didn’t move. I sat down on the bottom bunk. He moved from the top bunk to sit close next to me.
It’s hard to explain what this is like, but it’s UNCOMFORTABLE. I sat there for 1 stop. Two Italian girls popped their heads in, mentioned their seat numbers – that guy was never supposed to be there in the first place!
So much for the clean sheets and blanket I was hoping for. I curled up on the top bunk for a snooze, for our 3 hr trip to Jaipur.
We stayed in a little guesthouse out of the tourist district, thank goodness. Jaipur is larger than Agra (4.something million people), busy, loud, full of buses, brightly painted trucks with “Horn please” on the back. Autorickshaws with phrases like “Good girl make bad boy good” & “No girlfriend no tension” painted on them and motorbikes zipping in and out. All tooting their horns making a constant, deafening, cacophony that made every trip out and about a bit of a challenge.
Pigs (some with lots of little piglets), goats, cows all over the road everywhere. Skinny, mangy dogs avoiding you as they saunter past. Piles of rubbish, some burning some not – all trying to be avoided as we walked around. Cows living off plastic and cardboard. Street kids grabbing your arms asking for money and food. India isn’t very pedestrian friendly – there aren’t footpaths, no defined walkways – so a lot of the time if you do want to walk you’re half on the road.
The Snehdeep guesthouse has been around for more than 20 years passed on to a son by his mother, who now runs the place. It was like staying in a homestay, the family around, plus Indian tourists and us.
We talked to the owner Manoj a lot, learning bits and pieces about Jaipur, eking out titbits of Indian culture, learning about the food, how he’d built his business, what else he was interested in – he’d worked hard to clean up a lake near the city, showing with care of the environment, removal of rubbish, introduction of fish – you can bring hundreds of species of birds back. It was an ethos that resonated with all of us, and we genuinely enjoyed our stay there and would recommend it to anyone.
Other people within Jaipur were on a different level to Agra (that may be because we didn’t head out and about too much) and Delhi. I was stared at everywhere I walked. The one day I wore travel shorts down to my knees & a short sleeved shirt (it’s about 36 degrees and 30% humidity here) I got kissed at, stared at, yelled at more than anywhere else. The stares are strange, they just don’t stop. There’s none of the western embarrassment when you catch someone staring at you. Consequently I spent a lot of time in Jaipur just staring at my feet as it was more comfortable. (Alaina if you’re reading this – HOW did you travel India on your own!!).
It is a beautiful city though. The Pink City interior is like a huge market, but rather than stalls, lots of shop fronts in various groups. This might be the cookware section or the jewellery section or the brass statues of gods section.
The Palace and surrounds are incredible. Rather than the plain walls and ceilings of Agra & Delhi, ceilings are delicately painted, walls within the palace like frescoes showing vases of flowers.
On of my favourite areas was the Hawa Mahal. It’s a 5 storey red sandstone wall with 950 windows. In older times these windows allowed women to peek out without themselves being seen, and observe goings on below. It’s a beautiful structure, just a pity that it’s right on a crazily busy street, so hard to take pics of.
The interior of the Palace, well it was full of people and I couldn’t really be bothered pushing myself through. Jantar Mantar was interesting – HUGE instruments to measure the movement of objects in Space, felt like an oversized play area.
The actual Amber fort that Jaipur is famous for was best of all. It’s huge, with a bit of a drive out of the city to see it, perched on a rocky hill, overlooking a man-made lake with long walls reaching out from it. The interior has Islamic styled gardens, a room of mirrors, delicate artwork within the palace gates, all with the yellow ochreish colour warm against bright blue sky.
A few drinks on the rooftop, looking out across Jaipur, watching leftover Dusshera fireworks, relaxing. All well and good until Will got sick.
We chilled out for a day, hoping it might be something that would pass, Dan & I venturing out to find some medication (our accents making this a bit difficult, even with the exact medication we needed to find). We ventured further, to a market to find elusive toilet paper and bits and pieces. These strange experiences so foreign in comparison to what we were used to, even in the depths of Africa we still seemed to find western supermarkets.
Dan and I took the next day as our own to leave Will time to recover. We went looking for an old step well, down from the Amber Fort, stumbling across beautiful, ancient Buddhist temples on our way. We lunched at a Western-Style lunch place, having our first salad in weeks. Shopped in the hand-printed fabric shop next door. Stopped for sunset at one of the oldest temples in the region, high on a hill overlooking the city.
One of the biggest, oldest step wells in India was a bit of a drive away, about twice/three times the size of the one we saw near the Amber Fort. As we felt we’d seen a lot of Jaipur it was a good chance to get out of the city a bit, see a bit more of rural life.
The step well itself was massive, with a temple at its base. Built in the 9th century, definitely older than anything else we’d been seeing. We were directed by a “guide” – not a real one, someone just making a few hundred rupees at the gate.
We were asked to tip when we left as well – I refused, these are people sitting within a free to visit monument trying to scam tourists out of an extra a dollar or two. It feels like everyone is out to get something out of you here, creaming their commission off the top, I’m hoping this gets much less once we get out of the golden triangle part of India.
About an hour past the step well we ended up a place that wasn’t really sign posted, and old city called Bhangarh. Less busy than most other places we’d been, just a few local tourists and locals that lived near by. It’s like an old city, (I kept thinking of Ephesus, though nowhere near as old) with a huge now destroyed palace at the back. Temples were overgrown, cows walking around everything, the palace reduced from 7 storeys to 4. It was unbelievably hot & humid, we were all soaked after 10 minutes walking around.
It was nice to see something that wasn’t completely overcrowded. After what felt like longish drive and bit of a wait in the afternoon, passing by a windy sandstorm, a final meal with Manoj, and we were back to the train station – ready for our overnight train to Jaisalmer.