Incredible India

I arrived at the Indira Gandhi International airport in March of 2013 where I was met by the driver of the guest house I had booked. Managing to clear customs, retrieve my luggage, and get some rupees without any hitch, I accompanied Sanjay, who spoke adequate English, to his car for my first exposure to New Delhi traffic. He was a master at maneuvering the nightmarish traffic but not without the constant use of his horn which I quickly discovered was common throughout this part of India. This is a common scene in Delhi with the hoards of people, animals, cyclists, motorbikes, trucks, and buses all out to fend for themselves. There weren’t any road rules, and if there were any, they were not being obeyed. I was just happy to reach the Hospitality Home B&B in one piece.

My second shock was the entrance to this hotel which was located in a narrow alleyway with a very unappealing sign and a steep stairwell leading up to the five rooms. I began to suspect I had met my first Indian scam: the one where your cabby takes you to another place and receives a commission under the pretext that your place has been closed or burned down. Even the elderly man at the reception desk looked suspicious! It was a friendly English couple sitting nearby who temporarily dispelled any suspicions I had. To my delight, the rooms were everything I had seen on the booking site, and the odd-looking man was Mr. Sannai, the owner, who immediately put me at ease with a cup of his Indian tea. The English couple, Helen and David, couldn’t have been more welcoming. They were about to go out for a ‘bite to eat’ and afterwards to take a short tour of the city so invited me to come along with them. I had my first meal of delicious cucumber riata and  chick pea roti. This had to be one of the main reasons for coming to India! When we had finished eating, Sanjay took us back into the city traffic pointing out various points of interest, such as the very imposing Gate of India, a memorial to all those who lost their lives in WWII, and the Birla Mandir, an important prayer site for Hindus, which Mahatma Gandhi often visited. We stopped to take a tour of Humayun’s Tomb. Humayun was a powerful Mogul who ruled in the 1500’s and his wife had this built to honour him. With the imposing red sandstone buildings and lovely gardens, it was really beautiful, and, thus, is said to have been an inspiration for the man who built the Taj Mahal. With the temperature being in the comfortable low 20’s creating a surprisingly beautiful glow from the setting sun, we decided to carry on to see the famous Lodi Gardens, another place where the people of Delhi can escape the city’s chaos. We saw many strange birds including some we could put names to such as, green parrots and cuckoos. Unfortunately, there were too many crows which I discovered were everywhere in India in far too many numbers.

Although my first day in India was quite incredible, the next few were a series of ‘ ups and downs’ with the ‘downs’ outweighing the ‘ ups’ by far. I was quite ambivalent about making the trip up to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Part of me questioned how could I come all the way to India and not see it, while the other part of me didn’t want to face the hoards of people and the transportation available for getting there. I had quickly dismissed the idea of using the train and flying I reckoned would be too expensive. Thus, when an opportunity presented itself at Hospitality Home from an amicable young man who spoke perfect English, I began to rethink the idea of going. You only live once, I thought, so why not seize the day! I hastily decided to take his package deal with my own driver  because the price was affordable, but the best thing was it would all be planned for me. I could be the lady of leisure or so I thought! An added bonus was another free tour of Delhi. There was still lots more to see and do, and I certainly didn’t relish the idea of braving this city on my own, not after all the horror stories I had heard.

The downside to this freebie was the driver I got was not Sanjay as promised, but one whose only aim was to get a good tip. I had to do battle with him all the time just to get him to take me to the few places I still had left to see, rather than to the factories that made all those expensive Indian souvenirs where he would receive a commission. In the end, all the wrangling got me to see  Gandhi’s tomb, the Red Fort from the outside, and the Qutab Minar, India’s largest Muslim minaret built-in 1100 A.D. Oh yes, and he did drop me off at a very good restaurant that served delicious food. My big learning from this trip was to be wary of Indian men who do nothing but lie to you to get as much money out of you as possible. This one certainly fit into this category!

The next day, I was up early preparing to go to Agra with a different driver, thank goodness! Although this new one spoke very little English that I could understand, he was far more understanding and a very careful driver. The drive up took over six hours on roads that were sometimes good, but mostly bad. However, this drive gave me an opportunity to see the real India. Cattle were literally everywhere, tons of garbage and dust everywhere, and the horn honking never ceased. We arrived at the Taj late in the afternoon which is a good time to tour this famous tomb. The setting sun allows it to take on many subtle hues which, unfortunately, I could not get my camera to capture very well. My package tour came with my own guide who was there to meet me and to ward off the many touts who lie in wait for unsuspecting tourists. My first glimpse of this magnificent structure was literally breath-taking. I now knew why it’s said that when in India, you must make the effort to see it. It truly is one of the seven wonders of the world! The man responsible for this wonder was a Shah Jahan who built it as a memorial to his beloved wife who died giving birth to their 14th child. It was built with white marble imported from Europe and over 20,000 special artisans doing the carving and intricate inlay work. It took over 22 years to complete and had to be halted by the Shah’s son who threw his father into jail so he couldn’t spend any more money on it. He must have been worried about his inheritance!

My first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.

My first glimpse of the Taj Mahal

That night we continued to Rajasthan province arriving about midnight at the hotel I was to stay in just outside of Jaipur. Everything was just okay, not exceptional as I was led to believe. However, again I felt the pressure to tip everyone who dared to lift a hand whether I wanted them to or not. Next morning after an okay breakfast, it was nice to have my patient driver waiting outside for me. Drivers have to sleep and eat in separate quarters which are very basic.

Our first stop was the beautiful Amber Fort which sat atop the mountain overlooking the town of Ambre. This fort is really a palace and, to my mind, almost as lovely as the Taj for its decorative inlay work. I was then taken into the city of Jaipur commonly known as ‘the pink city’. To commemorate the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1876, the maharaja had all the buildings painted pink, a task all home and shop owners still have to do to this day, as the old part of the city has been declared a UNESCO site. I would have liked to have seen more of this city, but I started to worry about how long it would take us to get back to Delhi having had conflicting answers to my question of anywhere from three to eight hours. That’s the Indian way – to never give a straight answer. In case it was the latter, I wanted to start back mid afternoon because my flight out to Kerala was early the next morning. Thank goodness, my driver could accept ‘no’ as an answer to his question of whether I wanted to do some shopping. After his third half-hearted attempt, we set out for what looked initially like an enjoyable ride.

Inside the beautiful Amber Fort.

Inside the beautiful Amber Fort

Entrance to Jaipur, the 'pink' city.

Entrance to Jaipur, the ‘pink’ city

The trip back which was a different route from the one we took to go up, started off as a newly paved double lane highway, but after about 50km., it very quickly disintegrated so badly that as we got nearer to Delhi, we were driving on what appeared to be a single lane cow path. If you can picture this scene with huge trucks everywhere pushing and shoving their way through scores of tractors, auto rickshaws, motorbikes, sometimes with the whole family on board, along with cars coming from all angles, then you have an idea of the chaos that surrounded us. Then there were the fumes, the dust, and the incessant horn honking to top it all off! This horrific trip ended around midnight when we pulled up at Hospitality Home.  By this time, I was experiencing the beginnings of a very sore throat and headache. However, the upside to all of this was a strong admiration for my driver who never once hinted at getting a tip and showed such patience and dexterity in getting us through this ordeal. If he had to do this all the time to put food on his family’s plate, then he deserved a really good tip which he got with no questions asked. My faith in the Northern Indian man had been restored.

By the time I arrived in Varkala in Kerala state, I was definitely not in good shape and more than ready for the Ayurvedic treatments I had booked at Casa Eva Luna, the guest house where I was staying. In fact, Kerala is well-known for this ancient method of achieving wellness which was one of the reasons why I chose to fly all the way down there. One of the hostesses, Katrina, immediately booked an appointment for me with the Ayurvedic doctor who came the next day. She prescribed an herbal concoction along with some herbal pills followed by two wonderful oil massages. By day four, my cold/flu had almost disappeared. She put me on a diet of no dairy, eggs, or bananas which was difficult to stick to, but with the help of the two lovely hostesses at Casa Luna, we made it work.

My entire stay in Varkala, a beach community at the very southern end of India, was a totally different experience from that of the north. It was relaxing, not only because of the Ayurveda treatments, but also because it’s like a separate country from Northern India as I mentioned in the beginning. The people are not only better educated and, therefore, better off financially, they are also more laid back and not so concerned about getting the tourists’ money. To sum up, it is just much easier to live there resulting in more travelers from Europe, the United States, and Canada coming to spend winters there. It has lovely beaches and scenery, and a colourful culture making for an abundance of festivals to celebrate the many gods and goddesses sacred to the Hindu religion. Every celebration has elegantly dressed elephants, delicious food, and lots of loud music which I was able to witness in a nearby town. One downside to Kerala is it has a very hot, humid climate with a short window for a time when it’s more bearable. I’ve been told that December and January are the best months. I was there in March when already it was heating up with temperatures in the low 40’s. Even the sea water was almost like a hot bath so not very enticing if you like to swim to be refreshed from the oppressive heat.

The beach at Varkala in the state of Kerala.

The beach at Varkala in the state of Kerala

Would I ever consider going back to India? Yes, I would because the first trip is always the most difficult. In retrospect, I believe that if I could do it on my own the first time, then the second time would just be easier since I’ve learned so much about this incredible country. I know I would definitely like to see more of the south such as the tea plantations in the hills, the northern part of Kerala around Cochin, the capital, the jumping off point for seeing the system of canals that run through Kerala, and then there is the far north in Kashmir which is supposed to be a real experience. Yes, India is a very diverse country with something for everyone if one is able to deal with it.