Vibrant, colourful, chaotic, energetic, fragrant (not always pleasant…in fact more often unpleasant), crowded, dirty, beautiful, bustling, historic…Just a handful of words I could use to describe the vast, diverse and truly unique nation that is India.
Having lived in India as a child, I wasn’t entering the country blind, however upon arrival I realised the true contrast in what I saw through adult eyes vs.my memories of a sheltered childhood. For example the utter chaos and danger that are the streets of Old Delhi and the striking contrast between the poor and the rich living side by side in Mumbai.
India is like no other country you could ever visit, where the culture and daily life is alien to us Westerners. And as is our way of life alien to them, which soon became apparent as we spotted the public gawping at us as we passed by, or in some occasions even asking for a selfie. So if you ever want to feel like a celebrity for a day, you know where to go!
Ever since leaving India in 2004, I’ve had my sights set on revisiting one day and after years of thinking about it, I gave up trying to convince people to come with me and decided to take the plunge by myself. I figured I’d waited long enough by then and booked a Contiki tour for the following month. Though it took a significant chunk out of my savings, I most certainly have #noregrets! After two incredible weeks with a fantastic group of people, I don’t think the ‘holiday blues’ quite sums up how gutted I am not to be there still this week and I’m spending my days at work dreaming about my next trip…wherever that may be.
So to cling onto my holiday just a little bit longer, here’s my roundup of the Eternal India tour from Delhi to Goa, visiting Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur and Mumbai along the way!
Upon touch down in Delhi, it wasn’t long before I was alerted to the mayhem that India can bring at times, after being directed to THREE different passport control desks, by THREE different members of staff, and waiting in THREE different (never ending) queues for the best part of an hour. The silver lining however, was that during my wait in passport control, my soon to be roomie for the fortnight appeared down the escalator (Contiki travel wallet in hand), making for perfect timing to share a cab to our first hotel.
Split into an old and new counterpart, Delhi is one of the most hustling and bustling cities the world has to offer. Regarded as the heart of the nation, the city is steeped with rich history; and whereas New Delhi is scattered with lush gardens, Old Delhi is made up of a disarray of intertwined streets, jam packed with traffic (often on the wrong side of the road), street vendors and the occasional roaming cow.
During our brief stay in the city we paid a visit to the Red Fort, Jama Masjid Mosque and the Gurdwara Sikh Temple. A highlight however, was following the locals’ lead, and hopping in a cycle rickshaw for a hair-raising journey of dodging vehicles, pedestrians and countless stray animals, while clinging on for dear life!
The next stop was Agra – home to none other than the Taj Mahal! You don’t really need to ask what was on the Agenda for this stay…
In Delhi a number of the girls in the group had traditional Indian outfits made for our visit to the Taj and I’m so glad we did. There was something quite special about getting dressed up in a sequin embellished salwar kameez, to visit one of the most spectacular sight India has to offer. (That and the photos turned out much better than they would have if I had rocked up in my usual t-shirt and baggy trousers get up that I sported for most of the trip!)
Of course, with this came a lot of attention from the Indian tourists, who didn’t quite know what to make of 25 Westerners arriving on mass, wearing their traditional dress! Cue the celebrity treatment!
I’ve been asked if the Taj Mahal is as breathtaking in real life as it is in photos and after seeing it twice, I can say it most certainly is. Not only is the building stunning, but the history and fascinating process they went through to achieve 100% symmetry is beyond belief.
After perusing the Taj at a leisurely pace, we finished our afternoon with a trip to Agra Fort – the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638, when they relocated to Delhi. The Fort made for another interesting stop on the tour, brought to life by our tour guides Tom and Atul.
Next up was Ranthambhore National Park – the real reason I chose this tour over other similar trips on the market. To see a tiger in the wild has been a real dream of mine and one that I can now with great excitement say has come true!
The park is currently home to nearly 70 tigers, a figure that has tripled in the last 10 years, thanks to their efforts to banish poaching in the area. In fact, they now employ ex-poachers as tiger trackers to provide them with a stable income, so that they don’t turn to illegal practices.
We had been warned before our safari that it wasn’t a dead cert that we would see a tiger on the day, as they are solitary creatures and tend to cover the most ground over night. It wasn’t long before our tracker caught wind of one however, and after spotting a young female across a lake, the magnificent creature gradually made its way around the shore towards us. She even ventured straight up onto the dirt track in front of our jeep. Amazingly she seemed entirely unfazed by the numerous vehicles and dozens of people gawping at her. I guess she’s used to the celebrity treatment too!
Meet Arrow Head the tiger and a cheeky little black faced Langur monkey, who popped up to say hey on our way out of the park…
I’m going to be 100% honest here, because what’s the point of writing this if it’s not based on my personal experience?
I had high expectations for Jaipur – probably because of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel! I had visions of opulence and something really different from the other cities in India, however this wasn’t really the case. The old city is entirely walled and is know as the ‘Pink City’, thanks to every building inside being painted terracotta, in grand welcome of the Prince of Wales in 1876. Though this gave the city a unique dimension, I found much of it very similar to the streets of Old Delhi – chaotic and a bit grubby!
What the city does have to offer is spectacular hill top forts, one of which we took a morning trek around, joined by three lovely tag along dogs (by this point I was going crazy not being able to stroke the stray dogs on the streets). The city palace is also one to visit, made up of stunning architecture, intricate hand painted doorways and mosaic walls.
Another highlight – The shopping. The bustling markets here are fantastic for nabbing yourself a bargain, however you do have to have your wits about you, as the shop keepers certainly won’t take no for an answer. I found it quite stressful at times, getting hounded by dozens of vendors, but this didn’t stop me coming home with a bundle of new clothes and knickknacks!
I didn’t know an awful lot about Udaipur before the trip, meaning I didn’t really have any expectations. The verdict? I absolutely loved it and it’s even possible that it was my favourite destination on the tour.
Perched beside shimmering Lake Pichola, Udaipur instantly felt more serene, not to mention cleaner and greener than the other cities we had visited. When crossing the bridges across the rivers, you could even say it was like the Venice of India! Everything about the city seemed a lot calmer and when we visited the markets we were actually left to browse at our own will without being hassled. Result!
Our stay there just so happened to coincide with Holi Festival, which we marked by feeding the cows – a ritual which will provide you with good karma! There wasn’t a hungry cow in the city that day…a true perk of being a sacred animal!
Later in the evening we joined the locals for their Holi street party, which involved lighting an effigy and dancing until our feet feel like they’re going to fall off! I’m not usually much of a dancer without the help of a few glasses of wine, but thanks to the excitable kids it was so much fun!
Finally, what I’d been waiting for – touch down in Mumbai…Hello old home!
I expected to leave the airport and be flooded with memories, but this wasn’t really the case, as our hotel was on the opposite end of the city to where I used to live. Regardless, it was great to be back in Mumbai and to see how much it has developed and modernised over the years.
On the agenda was a brief stop at the Dhobi Ghat- A huge open air laundromat where the entire city’s laundry is cleaned and distributed. On a normal day it would be all hands on deck, but with it being Holi the area was filled with jovial young men splashing water and throwing coloured paint!
Which brings me on smoothly to our very own Holi celebration and what we had been eagerly anticipating since departing Udaipur. Stopping off at a beach (clad in white head to toe), we armed ourselves with powder paint in every colour under the rainbow, with the aim to come out as colourful as physically possible – and that we did!
After a thorough scrub clean, our Plan A was to attend a Bollywood dance class (another chance to show off my non-existent moves!), however the class was sadly cancelled for unpreventable reasons, leaving our evening wide open.
Plan B? A trip down memory lane! Who knew that Mumbai had Uber? And what a godssend it was! For the equivalent of about £6, I travelled an hour across the city to a suburb called Juhu, where I used to live all those years ago. And you know what? It hasn’t changed a bit! The driver took us straight down the route we used to take to school and finally I had the wave of nostalgia that I was seeking so much. I stopped off at my old apartment building and left the non-English speaking taxi driver highly confused as I snapped a few photos of a rather unassuming block of flats (aka my old home).
Finally, to gain a true insight into how the vibrant city works behind the scenes, we ended our stay in Mumbai with a tour of the city at dawn. The guide took us through the local fish market (pong!), the city’s newspaper distribution, a fruit and veg market and finally a street-side flower market. It was mesmerising to see the city at work at such an early hour in the day, especially considering most of the activity is over by the time the rest of the city rises. For anyone emerging after 9am, it would be as though it never happened at all!
On that note, getting up at 4:30am really isn’t for me, so I’m off for a nap!
To end our action-packed trip with a bit of down time, we wrapped it all up in Goa – A firm favourite for Indian and international tourists alike, thanks to it’s vast beaches, lively nightlife and fantastic weather.
Finally we had the lie in that we’d been craving for days….only kidding, there’s no rest for the wicked on the Eternal India tour and we had one final early wake up call left- this time for sunrise yoga on the beach. Because when in Goa…one must top up their zen!
Naturally, I spent the rest of my final day sprawled across a sun lounger because I couldn’t go home pastey now could I?!
On a final note, the one thing that people keep on asking me about is the food. Yes, it was as delicious as you may expect, but yes…without going into too much detail I did get ill. It’s all part’n’parcel with the India experience I’m afraid!
I’ve never really been that into Indian food, having carried a misconception that it’s all meat in sauce with rice, but after going vegetarian for my stay I am officially a convert and have found a new favourite in Palak Paneer (Indian cheese in a spinach based sauce)…try it!
One thing to note is that if the locals say that something is spicy, it will most likely set your mouth on fire!
That’s all for now folks, I’ll hopefully be back soon with new adventures!