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Published: June 28th 2015
While it’s hard to paraphrase a month of adventure into a small reflective epilogue, there are a few standout memories that I’ve collated below.
The food in India was sensational. Regardless of where it was cooked (or who it was cooked by), the food was always a highlight of our travel days. While it’s difficult to pick some meals over others, the following were absolute standouts:
• Mushroom vindaloo and aubergine curry in Fort Kochi (our first meal in India)
• Kerala fish curry in Fort Kochi
• ‘South Indian Meal’ in Coimbatore (the best all-you-can-eat thali for $AUD1.70)
• Potato and cauliflower curry wherever we stopped, with particularly memorable versions in Ooty, Mysore, Madurai, Thekkady, Ranthambhore, Fort Madhogarh and Pushkar
• Roast chicken and baby potatoes in Masinagudi
• Fish curry in Mamallapuram
• Bean and pumpkin curry in the Kerala Backwaters
• Chicken and beetroot stew in Fort Kochi (on our last night in Southern India)
• Goat curry and stuffed potatoes on a freezing night in Agra
• Goat curry and chickpea flour dumplings on a freezing night in Jaipur
• Goat curry on a freezing night (and in a freezing restaurant) in
• Yam curry on a freezing night in Castle Bijaipur (the hottest curry we experienced in India)
• Chicken curry at a rooftop restaurant in Udaipur (as we gazed over Pichola Lake at night)
• Egg curry and stuffed potatoes in Old Delhi (our last meal in India)
• Dahl curry – day in, day out
• Naans and chapathis – day in, day out
• Masala chai – day in, day out
• Fresh lime soda – day in, day out
• Kingfisher beer – day in, day out (especially the extra strength version).
It’s a humbling experience to be accepted as a tourist in another country. Nearly everyone we met in India was genuinely interested in where we had been and where we were heading. The following are just a few of the people who made our travels so enjoyable and entertaining:
• The guy running Saj Homestay in Fort Kochi who politely laughed at my antiquated laptop (which stopped working two weeks later)
• The guy running Munch Box café in Fort Kochi who politely suggested the floorboards where to blame when I broke three of his stools by simply sitting on them
• The locals in Ooty who called us over to their tiny street stall for an early morning chai
• The four friendly army officers we sat with on the train from Pondicherry to Madurai
• The fantastic staff at Delhi airport who helped locate my missing backpack
• The young guy in Delhi who jumped onto his motorbike and headed out into the freezing night to pick up a few Kingfisher beers from a ‘special’ place
• The guy running a tiny street stall in Jaipur who solved my laptop woes with a $AUD2.70 mouse
• The guy running a small bookshop in Udaipur who could access anything we wanted within a few hours
• The guy running Rajputhan Music House in Pushkar who was so incredibly helpful when I was looking for a shruti box
• Mohsin, our guide in Northern India, who singlehandedly made the trip a memorable one.
I fell in love with the food, landscape, monuments and atmosphere of this fantastic country. The following are just a few standout experiences of our India travels:
• Sitting poolside at Jungle Retreat as the stunning Mt Nilgiri towered above us
• Being followed by
the eyes of a cow as I walked past an amazing fresco in Mysore Palace
• Body surfing in the Bay of Bengal
• Gazing through the window of a train at the tranquillity of rural India
• Jumping off trains to quickly buy snacks before the train lurched onwards
• Being jammed into seething crowds of people
• Striking up conversations with complete strangers
• Wandering the long stone corridors of Sri Meenakshi Temple
• Walking in silence through the tranquil evergreen forest at Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
• Mistakenly thinking the ‘Speed Post’ counter at a post office was the quicker option
• Sharing great curries with great travel friends
• Watching village life unfold as we drifted by boat through the Kerala Backwaters
• Being crammed in like sardines on a windowless public bus from Alleppey to Fort Kochi
• Being captivated by the simplicity and beauty of Jama Masjid mosque
• Being moved by the humanity of volunteers at Gurdwara Sisganj Sikh temple
• Walking barefoot through the streets of Old Delhi
• Taking in the tranquil surrounds of Humayun’s Tomb
• Eating breakfast on a train while reading the ‘matrimonials’ section of the Hindustan Times
Navigating the monolithic and mesmerising Agra Fort in thick morning fog
• Watching the Taj Mahal disappear in the mist and gloom of a late rainy afternoon
• Gazing through the window of a bus at the immeasurable poverty of outer Agra
• Arriving at the majestical Fort Madhogarh in an open jeep
• Standing in awe as the imposing Amber Fort towered above us
• Watching a Bollywood film in Hindi without subtitles
• Driving through the arid landscape of Rajasthan in the shadow of the imposing Aravali Ranges
• Wandering the cobbled streets of the old city centre in Bundi
• Camping lakeside at Pangarh Retreat
• Watching life unfold as we wandered through a remote Bheel tribe village
• Relaxing at Castle Bijaipur (so, so far from the madding crowd)
• Listening in awe to an amazing dholak player at Bagore Ki Haveli
• Exploring the barren outskirts of Pushkar on the back of a camel
• Staring out a maniac on the overnight train from Ajmer to Delhi
• Wandering the backstreets of Karol Bagh on our final days in India.
The Head Wobble
Throughout our month long stay in India, I couldn’t help but
notice an incredible form of non-verbal communication. The head wobble is quintessentially Indian, and I always thought it was a gesture of “Yes”. However, after observing Indian people talking with each another, I realised it is used in many different ways, and its meaning is dependent on the way the head is shaken in combination with the expression on the person’s face. I also realised that Indians use this gesture to communicate without words. This fascinated me, so I started to document the different versions of the gesture and what I thought each person was trying to convey. My all-time favourite was a woman at the Taj Mahal who was clearly unimpressed with the amount of time her husband was taking as he struggled to put the mandatory white covers over his shoes. She didn’t say a word, but he clearly knew by the movement of her head and the look on her face that she wanted him to hurry up.
I compiled the following list on the back page of my travel diary, and it’s what I thought people were trying to convey when they used this intriguing non-verbal gesture:
• Yes and no
• Kind of
• Not really
• I’m not really sure
• I don’t really care
• No problem
• You’re welcome
• Don’t mind me
• Whenever you’re ready
• I’m OK
• I’m not OK, but I’m coping
• I’m impressed
• I’m not impressed
• It was alright, but nothing to write home about
• Thank you
• I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it
• I can’t believe it either
• I agree
• I don’t agree, but I can’t be bothered arguing the point
• I suppose you’re right
• You are an idiot, sir. SHE SAID...
It’s been interesting writing this summary of our trip so long after we came home (nearly five months!). Personally I much prefer to write and post our blogs as we travel. However, one too many quick stopovers on our southern trip caused us to get behind in our writing, and then our technology failed us. So we had no choice but to post about 80% of our blog after we got home.
Our time in India was incredible and we came
home feeling exhilarated, but I was also overwhelmed and struggling to process everything we’d experienced…all of it in a very good way. It was an intense sensory overload of bright saris, pushy cows, ancient sites, slums, begging children, incessant car horns, dusty streets, loud talkers, spices, heavenly curries, delicious chai
(tea), marigold garlands and smoky incense. There was just so much of everything to take in!
We had a month in India – two weeks in the south and two weeks in the north. Four weeks is such a short amount of time to see even a fraction of this huge county, so I was really glad for the efficiency of time and organisation that we had through travelling with Intrepid Travel. It’s a pretty crazy place, and I was very happy to have the safety net of our guides Karni and Mohsin until we got our bearings (and a fabulous travelling companion like Andrew helped too)! I thought our two trips were the perfect introduction to India. Here’s a sort of summary of both our trips and some of my random thoughts...
I had to learn to come to terms with India’s very different sides very quickly
– it was a world full of grand architectural statements, epicurean delights, rich cultures, charming towns and villages; but at the same time it was a world of intense poverty and an accumulation of social injustices.
Southern India was a great start to our trip. We covered a lot of territory across three southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu: from one coast to another, into the Hill country, a couple of National Parks, several cities, the Kerala Backwaters, and finishing up where we started – in Fort Kochi. It was a grand southern Indian circle of sorts. 😊
The south Indian landscape was largely tropical and full of temples and churches and scenic beauty. There were tea plantations, spice gardens, forests, tiger reserves, rice fields, mango trees and coconut tree fringed beaches. The people were very lovely – the children were happy and noisy, the men were boisterous and sharp, and the women were welcoming and warm.
We then headed north to the urban world of Delhi, and to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The rest of our time in the north was spent in the sparse, brown desert state of Rajasthan. Think flat
desolate camel filled plains, man-made lakes, old world royalty in crumbling castles, sandstone fortresses, stout turbaned and moustachioed men and colourfully dressed women.
The tropic of cancer in India divides more than just the tropical and temperate zones – it also partitions the country by race, culture and social attitudes.
There was much more of a western influence in the south – Portuguese and French in the early days and British later on. There were signs of Christianity with churches and auto rickshaws
with Christian symbolism on bumper stickers and windshields. The north still showed signs of the heavy Mughal Muslim influence in the architecture and food, with Hinduism making an overarching statement on all other aspects of the culture and society. There were also clear differences in the way Hinduism is practiced in the south and north.
In terms of architecture – the extensive sculpturing in temples was remarkable. I found the crowded and colourful Sri Meenakshi Temple to be very interesting and spiritual. The Keshava Temple just outside Mysore was monochrome and quite, but equally spiritual and very beautiful. The elaborate Mysore Palace was a mishmash of styles and a bit over-the-top in interior design.
While the palaces in the north were merely an echo of their former selves, which was quite charming but a little sad too. The forts were consistently impressive, regardless of their condition. My favourite architectural spaces were the Mughal inspired bold design statements that mesmerized me with their sharp lines and clean symmetry – a clear favourite was Hanuman’s Tomb.
Our accommodation experiences on this trip were diverse. We stayed in 3 to 4-star hotels, at a charming homestay on the backwaters, in an extraordinary shared dormitory in the wild, in faded traditional homes, in old palaces, in a luxury tent and in a fort. The quality ranged from ‘just ok’ to ‘oh my god fabulous’. Hot water is not a given in Indian hotels, which was fine in the warm south but not so fine on very cold mornings in the north.
We used quite a lot of local forms of transport. We experienced a range of local and long distance buses, the metro, trains, auto rickshaws
, open-top safari vehicles, jeeps, ferries, boats, camels, private minibuses and taxis. There was also the ‘Toy Train’ ride into the Nilgiri ranges in Ooty, where in the old days the
British had summered to escape the scorching heat of the lowlands. We caught seven trains, two of which were overnight journeys in second class sleeper 3-tiered AC carriages. Two trains were plush, one was quite grimy with no reserved seating and the others were more than adequate. The chai
on the trains was extraordinary and a highlight of our trips. The toilets on the trains were a lowlight of the trip (well, not really, but they could have been MUCH better). We caught a boat to and from the homestay in the Kerala Backwaters, and also experienced a pole boat ride on the canals of the Backwaters. The camel trek to the sand dunes in Pushkar was as exciting as expected, but I was very glad that is was only for two hours!
Despite safaris (both by jeep and on foot) in three national parks, we were not successful in seeing any wild elephants in their own habitat. On the other hand, I was very thrilled to have seen my first Bengal tiger in the wild! As for the captive/domesticated elephants we saw, I wasn’t impressed with their treatment at all – although appearing well fed, they all had
their legs chained, had sores on their backs and tails, and almost always were agitated or distressed and swaying. The worst cases were the elephants at the Amber Fort in Jaipur.
The chaotic city streets were a constant surge of people, vehicles and animals. Cars and motorbikes travelled on whichever side of the road that got them to their destination fastest. The pavements were sometimes more hazardous than the roads, as I wasn’t expecting vehicles to come charging at me while I was walking on them. However, we got used to things very quickly and stopped giving a second glace to the exposed wires and metal rods jutting out of the ground. On the other end of the spectrum, I really loved the small rural villages we visited. There was no pollution of any sort, and I relished the quiet clean air.
Regardless of where we were in the country, Indian driving was as frightening as it looks in the media! Even when it was a multi-lane road, overtaking often occurred on the wrong side and head-on confrontations were very common. And considering that everything and everyone (trucks, motorbikes, donkey and camel carts, pedestrians and free roaming cows
and dogs) used the roads, it was quite terrifying at times. Our scariest road experiences were in hilly areas with tight curves where buses and trucks had to take several stabs at trying to overtake, and I’ll never forget the mad octogenarian driver who nearly killed us several times over while driving us to the Kochi airport at 5am in the morning.
As with many large/over populated countries, there were a few other safety concerns too. From a female point of view, covering up helped. I followed the rules of strictly no short clothing, and depending on how traditional the town was, covered arms were also advisable. It’s not that difficult to gauge the conservativeness of a place – so I’m baffled at how some female tourists either got it wrong or didn’t care about standing out and being stared at. And when I say stared at, I don’t mean the way people stare in most countries. I mean stopping mid stride, open-mouthed staring. And sometimes pointing.
For obvious reasons I blended in more than the other girls in the group. However, my short hair and mixed race relationship status firmly spotlighted me as a foreigner and garnered
me a fair share of cringe worthy and confronting stares. I have never witnessed so much staring in my whole life! Over time I got used to the staring, but I never got used to the lecherous smiles from groups of youngish looking males. It was totally gross. Even with Andrew by my side, I wasn’t spared the commentary. If I had been travelling alone, there would have been many nights where I probably wouldn’t have left my hotel room after dark. Madurai and Delhi were the worst for this.
After I came to terms with the fact that people WILL stare at me, it stopped bothering me. My usual way to deal with staring is to stare back and shame/startle the person into looking away. However, I was pre-warned to avoid eye contact with men in India...apparently it’s considered flirtatious (seriously – how can my evil-eyed angry stare be considered a come on??). So all I could do was ignore it.
Stepping onto the streets of India, it’s difficult to avoid the crowds. At times I found the teaming mass of humanity to be a little overwhelming. I thought I was used to large crowds from living
in Hong Kong and London, but the extreme numbers of people came as a big shock. There’s no way to prepare for the fact that there are over 1.3 billion people in India. The crowds were at their worst in train stations, markets and temples; and the north was much more crowded than the south. At one point in northern India, I wished we had reversed the order of the trips and ended our travels in the quieter south. However, on second thoughts, I was glad for the gentle easing into things we got in Kerala. I’m not sure I would have appreciated Delhi as my first introduction to India. Old Delhi seriously tested my ideas of personal space.
The south was far less gritty than I thought it would be, but Delhi was all sorts of filthy! Hygiene standards in India have apparently come a long way in recent years, but they were often still below the standards of other Asian countries we’ve been to. We very much lived by the ‘cook it, peel it or forget it’ rule, and other rules of only drinking bottled water and only buying food from places that had a high turnover
(or that had been cooked in front of us etc.) very much applied. Our hand sanitisers got a good workout throughout the day, and as per usual we carried our own supply of toilet paper and wet wipes.
Delhi Belly isn’t a myth. I think anyone would be lucky if they travelled to India for more than a week and didn’t get some kind of dodgy stomach during their stay. Having said that, I still can’t believe that I didn’t get any major stomach issues! I suppose not everyone gets full-blown food poisoning, but like Andrew’s one night of gastro, I’m sure most people will probably get a little dose of something while they were there. We had packed a massive amount of ciprofloxacin and gastro-stop tablets. We didn’t use it as much as I had feared we would, but they gave us peace of mind on travel days. 😊
Poverty was less evident in the south than in the north. I’m not sure if this was a population related issue or whether some States were better at managing it than others. Kerala definitely proved the argument that education (especially of women) is a key weapon in fighting
poverty. The literature I read confirmed that even though there is a rapidly expanding middle class, there is also an increasing number of people living well below the poverty line. The slums in big cities are full to the brim, and beggars of all ages, particularly children, were hard to witness. While it is heartbreaking, we think giving them money exacerbates the problem. So instead, our strategy was to support a few different local charities that are close to our hearts.
Underneath the apparent chaos and disarray of India at first glance, there are strict organising principles for Indian life. The three tenets of religion, family and food strongly underpin Indian life, and all three are very much interlaced with each other. Once I realised this, a lot of things that had seemed foreign to me at first, started to make sense.
As seems to be the way in India, the gods were ever-present in all aspects of life and culture. The devotion and fierce attitude to religion was something that gave me much reason for thought. We’ve been to religious countries before, but the clue that this was a whole different level of religion was when we
had to disclose our religion on the Indian visa forms! That was a bit weird to say the least. The whole visa process itself was the most convoluted and complicated of all visas we’d ever applied for. But that’s another story.
We came to India expecting to love the food, and it turned out that we LOVE LOVE LOVE the food. It surpassed our expectations, especially in the north. All the dishes were wildly flavourful and addictive. I’m not saying that everything we ate was delicious, but every meal we ate had at least one or more elements to it that were utterly delicious. Every region we went to had pride in their dishes, and we got a good sense of the people, religion and culture through what they ate and how they ate it. In the tropical south, coconut milk-based sauces, curry leaves and fresh lime added a distinct flavour, and the main staple was rice. In the north, the arid climate influenced the food with dried spices, seeds and yoghurt, with the main staple being wheat. We’d decided to be as vegetarian as possible while we were in India, and this was made very much easier by
the fact that Indian vegetarian curries are fabulous. However, we really enjoyed the fish curries in Kerala and the goat curries (they call it mutton) in Rajasthan.
Our journey through India was very much defined by the chais
, lime sodas, curries, naans
, and sweets we consumed, not to mention the chutneys and pickles that added tang and zing to everything. And then there were the mountains of sugary sweets and desserts (which suited me perfectly). And we drank sweet chais
like it was going out of fashion!
Our journey was made all the easier for the fact that many Indians were very friendly and spoke English. It’s really easy to strike up a conversation with people if you know the names of a few International cricket players or have an opinion on any of the Indian players.
There were a few touristy spots throughout our trip, but other than in Pondicherry and Pushkar, the tourist crowds weren’t too bad. The bonus of going to touristy places is that the hotel services are slightly better, and you don’t get stared at quite as much. However, the higher proportion of touts and scammers more than write off those
I now understand why India is such a love/hate destination for visitors. Some people vow never to return, but others spend months on end exploring the country, totally loving it, and sometimes returning multiple times. Personally, I think it’s one of those places that everyone may want to experience at least once. To put it bluntly, there’s nowhere else like India. Each region is different to the next and every day is a proper adventure. It tested a lot of what I thought I knew about humanity, and that was a good thing. However, it would be best to steer well clear of India if you swear by orderly queues, traffic rules, personal space, and meals arriving in a timely manner.
As with all our travels (but more so in India), we needed to remain light-hearted and have an open mind. An easy going attitude really helped us to be unfazed by delays and changes of plans, and to be prepared to embrace whatever adventure each day brought us. The ability to smile was very useful too.
From a personal point of view, travelling to India was a lesson in not letting things perturb me...
I had to let go of being bothered by administrative inefficiencies; I had to ignore what I deemed to be unacceptable body odour in public; I had to take a deep breath when people violated my personal space; I had to try not to let my heart break at every case of animal suffering; and I had to steel myself against blatantly open inequality.
However, the biggest frustration that I had while I was there was the overpopulation issue. I know of grass roots organisations that are working with and educating rural women about family planning. However, that seems like a very very very small drop in the ocean in comparison to the mammoth size of the crisis. In a country where children are revered as gifts from the gods, I can’t see how an Indian government would ever take the unpopular and risky step of attempting to curb population growth.
I will leave you with this image of India… children pumping water into clay pots at a town pump. Shimmery white marble and red sandstone monuments. Small food carts of freshly cooked food fighting for road space with unpredictable traffic. Bright multi-coloured Hindu shrines dotting the dusty
roads. Groups of noisy children playing cricket. Confident cows navigating busy cities to visit shops owners for treats. A woman walking through a green wheat field with her pink sari flapping behind her…
However, it wasn’t all colourful saris and playful children. My senses will never forget the cacophony of noises that accompanied us almost 24 hours a day. Or the yo-yo of odours that erratically shifted from enticing street food to cow dung to stagnant drains to sweet fresh marigolds to curry spices to shoe polish to death stench toilets to smoky incense. It was an unpredictable ride. 😉
One of our travel philosophies is that there is no such thing as a bad trip… but that doesn't mean that some journeys aren't better than others. Our travels in the north of India were definitely more enjoyable and rewarding than in the south. We’ve reflected on the reason for this, and we think it’s a combination of the facts that we had too many quick stops in the south (which was tiring), and that the north was so much more different to anything else we’ve experienced before. Unsurprisingly, we already have tentative plans to return and explore
more of the north and north east.
I found India remarkably complicated, beautifully captivating, totally humbling and frustratingly old-fashioned. And so much more real now that we’ve had just a tiny peek at it. Despite all the good, bad, ugly and stunning sides to India, the general sense I am left with is one of overwhelming generosity and happiness. Overall, India was a very rewarding travel destination. The natural beauty, deep rooted history, delicious food, profound spirituality and welcoming charm of India has made this one of the most unexpectedly fascinating travel experiences I’ve had.
Alvida people, and may all your travels lead to new and amazing outlooks! 😊 Flying ships on this trip... Qantas Airways (Hobart – Melbourne)
; Singapore Airlines (Melbourne – Singapore)
; Silk Air (Singapore – Cochin)
; Singapore Airlines (Delhi – Singapore – Melbourne)
; Virgin Airways (Melbourne – Hobart)
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