My partner and I came up with a travel list-places we want to go in this crazy world– from the most adventurous to the most relaxed. India has been on the top of the list. I also decided I wanted to do a big trip with each of my now adult kids and their partner. We travelled a lot as a family when the kids were all still at home but now that they are all at university, traveling together just doesn’t happen. So I put it out there to my kids and my son Sam, and his girlfriend Lianna were able to come on this February India trip. My other kids now have to decide which trip they will be able to accompany us.
I’ve been back from India for three weeks now. I’ll be honest; it’s taken a bit to get resettled back into life here in Vancouver. India is busy and crazy and raw and relentless and beautiful. Vancouver is quiet and peaceful and relaxed and beautiful. So different. It was definitely a trip of a lifetime.
In the beginning…
We started out in New Delhi being picked up by a driver from the hotel where we were staying. The first impression was how absolutely chaotic and undisciplined the roads are. We encountered Tuk Tuks galore, taxis, rickshaws, cows, dogs, and pedestrians all straining to navigate the roads. Horns blared, whether required or not, to fill the smog choked air-the air so thick with smog the sun is merely a suggestion in the greyed sky. My senses were on fire just from the ride in from the airport.
A neon sign and a nondescript door designated the hotel we stayed at. Certainly unlike any hotel I had stayed in before. But as we entered off the crazed streets, the inside offered clear relief from the overwhelm. Whew, welcome to India!
We toured Delhi on our own, scouting out the sites and attempting to hail Tuk Tuks. We learned very quickly one doesn’t actually need to hail a Tuk Tuk. If they see you on the side of the road they will stop and offer their services. And once one stops, several more will stop to enter the fray to offer a better price or to find out where you are going. I quite enjoyed this part. It felt very communal somehow. Like there was genuine curiosity and interest in helping us out.
Tuk Tuk rides in India are an experience. We took a lot of video footage from a Tuk Tuk because the experience was so surreal. The horn seems to be a necessity to driving in India. It is constant. The Tuk Tuks swerve and veer at high speeds to get you to your destination as fast as humanly possible but they need to avoid the many cows that care freely amble along so it can make for a ride as adventurous as any amusement park. There are very few sidewalks so one must be in the traffic when walking. To cross a street is a feat for sure and not just a little bit stressful.
We spent the first day getting acclimatized to this very disordered city. There are 26 million people in New Delhi and I really felt the heightened energy of so many people in one place. There does not seem to be a single unoccupied space. Every nook and cranny has a person, a vehicle, a cow or a dog filling it to capacity.
The dirt and filth are part of the city’s constitution. Stepping over cow dung or dog feces is a common occurrence while avoiding the plastic water bottles, food wrappers, chai cups, and other garbage strewn about everywhere. Cows, dogs and goats forage in the larger garbage piles in search of something edible, while kids forage for something salvageable.
This first day was a shock to my system. I have been to Africa four times and yet I felt a deep nagging in my chest. I couldn’t catch enough breath to clear it. Movies, pictures etc. are all great but really, nothing prepared me for the overwhelming atmosphere of New Delhi. At one point we were in an area that it was very apparent we were the only tourists and so perhaps saw more than we would have, had we stayed in the tourist areas. Some street children were set up at the base of one of the temples with their only belongings wrapped in blankets. There were many of them, making up what looked like a version of a “family” from ages 3-10. Their matted hair and grimy, blackened clothes signified complete lack of attention. This finally, brought me to tears. I just had to sit at the base of this temple and quietly weep for the lives of these blessed children.
The next day I felt much more equalized. My culture shock was fading and I was getting more acclimated to the complete sensory overload. My eyes were getting used to the chaos and my other senses were catching up. I could now start to see the beauty underneath the chaos. And oh, how there was beauty!! The spice market and the flower market, so alive with vibrant colour against the grey backdrop of the city buildings and skies. The brightly coloured temples were accentuated with gorgeous women in their colourful saris, adorned with their gold bangles and earrings. Pots of chai or curries boiling on the roadside had passersby stop long enough to visit with each other as they nourished themselves before going about their day. Tiny crowded shops overflowing with merchandise with the shop owner leaning out of his shop to catch anyone willing to bargain.
After Delhi we moved on to Varanasi, which is considered the spiritual capital of India. I found it fascinating! People go to Varanasi to die and then be cremated on a pyre by the Ganges River. The whole process was a sight to see. A family, all men as women are not allowed, arrived with their loved one and set them on the pyre of wood. There is an eternal flame that is guarded by Dalits that is then used to light the pyre. The family stays with the body for the 4-6 hours it takes to cremate then pours the ashes into the Ganges. There are five reasons where a person cannot be cremated ; leprosy, pregnancy, an infant, bitten by a cobra, and if they are a priest. In these cases there are also large slabs of concrete by the Ghats that can be purchased. The loved one is then tethered to the slab and released into the Ganges. Sometimes the tethering comes loose and the body is left to float down the river (and yes, we did see this too!).
There is a sacred prayer ceremony by the largest Ghat each evening, which one can watch from a rented boat and is just beautiful. Many people use the Ghats for bathing and the local hotels do all the hotel laundry in the river and dry the sheets and towels on the stairs of the Ghats.
The homestay experience…
After Varanasi we went south to Kerala. We stayed in a lovely homestay on one of the backwaters and it was so good to escape the busyness of the cities. We stayed in many homestays on our trip and found them all to be clean and a great way to travel. The hosts were always so gracious and the food was second to none.
Touring the backwaters was just lovely. We did three boat rides while we were there and saw beautiful birds, people fishing off the side of the river, doing laundry, brushing their teeth and bathing. The river is a quiet flurry of activity from toddlers to grandparents performing their activities of daily living.
After we left Kerala we met up with my son and his girlfriend in Delhi.
We had one full day of touring with them as they fought jet lag before we all set off to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Agra is not a pretty city. It is dirty and smoggy so the main event is the Taj. We (and all the other tourists!) spent the evening at a local park to watch the sun set on the gorgeous building.
Jaipur was our next destination. We were to be met by a driver we had hired to take us between Jaipur, Pushkar and Jodhpur but when we exited the train, our driver was not to be found. We were immediately inundated with offers from rickshaw and Tuk Tuk drivers to take us to our destination. Finally we met up with our driver after learning there were two exits at the train station!
Jaipur is a really beautiful city. We had a guide for the day and he didn’t leave anything unseen. After an eight-hour tour of the city we were tired! Monkeys, stepwells, temples and castles filled the day.
Pushkar was next on the itinerary. The Holi festival was coming up so colored paints were for sale at many stalls in the city. Holi is an India-wide festival that is celebrated with powdered paint. The legend behind Holi is that it celebrates the triumph of good reigning over evil. They drench each other with powdered paint and then water from water guns or water balloons. It is a fun festival that is to unify everyone regardless of colour.
Pushkar was also a spiritual town with Ghats where we did a little ceremony to bless our families.
The next morning we took a cooking lesson from our homestay host. This was excellent! We learned about spices, made naan and chipati, and a few different curries. It was so much fun! And then we had a feast of all the food we had cooked. This was a real highlight for me. I haven’t made any Indian food since we have been back but it is certainly on my list to get going on putting those new skills to work.
Mixing together the chapatti and naan
Desert camel rides were next. We were met by four boys aged 14-18 that did not speak English. It was by many gestures that we figured out how to mount the camels. We each had one of the boys ride with us on the camel. We really had no idea where we were going but just had to trust that we were headed to the desert campsite.
The ride was BEAUTIFUL!! I absolutely loved this! The camels were so entertaining and it felt like a real adventure to be riding these huge animals through the desert. There were very few people and it just felt so different than the cities. The rolling hills and arid vegetation were like a breath of fresh air after the all the crowds.
After watching the sunset from a top one of the hills we trotted down into our campsite where we were the only visitors. We had a campfire and had an amazing meal prepared for us by the camp’s cook. We felt very spoiled.
The next morning we headed off on camel back again only this time we rode through all the little villages along the way back to Pushkar. That was just as awesome as going through the desert. The little kids ran out to the road to greet us as we passed by. They were all making their way to school and we were a rare sight I am sure.
Finishing with a flurry of colour…
From Pushkar we went to Jodhpur. This was the start of the Holi celebration. We were excited and honoured to be included by our host family in their neighbourhood party on our last night in India. It was a perfect way to end our trip. We found the people of Jodhpur very friendly and outgoing. The kids were just so sweet and somewhat mischievous. They got quite a charge of seeing us run through their gauntlet of water guns as they prepared for the party.
The Holi festival is something to behold. Giant piles of cow dung are painted then burned in a huge bonfire to kick off the event. Then the paint comes out and no one is spared!! Random people will come up and smear your face with paint and say “Happy Holi”! It really is a wonderful event and I loved every minute of it! My favourite picture of our trip was taken that night.
It has taken me a while to get back in the swing of things since being home. India is not an easy place to travel but I am so glad we have experienced it. I feel we got so much out of the trip! I have a friend that went to India two years in a row and now I can see why. There is so much to see! I feel like we have just scratched the surface so perhaps another trip is in order…