True to form India lived up to its current tourist board campaign title in every way being truly “Incredible”. This was my first time in India and it didn’t disappoint. From the frenetic activity of Delhi where tuk tuks, trucks, rickshaws and the odd cow all shared the road to seeing elephants walking casually down the street, monkeys running along the rooftops with babies clinging upside down to their chests and experiencing the enthusiasm of the audience watching a newly released Bollywood blockbuster – these were just a few of the experiences I wouldn’t forget.
My Infra-red India tour covered the main sites of the Rajasthan region called the ‘Golden Triangle’ which included Agra and Jaipur as well as the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh.
I’m always nervous when I meet new people for the first time, especially when I’m going to be travelling with them for nearly two weeks in an unfamiliar country – but I needn’t have been. My travelling companions were fantastic company and made my time in India even more special.
Our tour leader, Shailendra Singh Bhati (Singh), was fantastic. He was extremely laid-back and seemed to be in control at all times, so much so that because of this (and the Aviator sunglasses he wore all the time) we nicknamed him ‘Daddy Cool’! He was a respected figure in the Rajput community and both informative and entertaining. His sense of humour and calmness helped make the tour a success for everyone.
We stayed in some really interesting places from a lovely hotel in the centre of Jaipur where we were greeted with sprinklings of rose petals to the feudal lord’s palace in Tordi Garh with its wonderful rooftop terrace looking out over the village, allowing great views of the starry night sky. Our colonial-style hotel in Varanasi even had a swimming pool!
The food we ate was delicious and being a vegetarian it suited me down to the ground. I ate plenty of dhal, naan bread and creamy vegetable curry as well as lots of paneer (cottage cheese) dishes. The thing I enjoyed most though was the freshly squeezed sugar cane juice which I watched being made on the streets – a definite refresher in the 40 plus degree heat!
I really enjoyed sharing a lot of the transport on the tour, in particular the overnight train journeys where we got to know some of the locals in the cabins and share some of their home cooked food. The people I encountered were very friendly and wanted to know all about us and where we were from – and of course which football team we supported!
The visit to Tordi, a small rural village a couple of hours from Jaipur, was my favourite as we got to see local people going about their everyday lives. We played cricket with the children and after a camel cart ride outside the village, we watched the sun go down over the wide expanse of plains on top of a sand dune whilst sipping a cup of char – magic.
Varanasi has to be another “must see” city. Colloquially it is known as the city of ‘learning and burning’ because of its two universities and because over 300 bodies a day are cremated on the banks of the Ganges, the sacred river of the Hindus. We had a very early morning start on the second day here and took a boat trip on the river to witness the sun rise and watch hundreds of locals washing, playing and even fishing in this holiest of rivers.
I always enjoy the unexpected moments the most. On this tour one of my favourites was getting a puncture on the bus we were travelling on just outside Agra and having to stop, fortuitously, right beside an ashram (spiritual centre) where we were invited in to sit down on the floor and sing with the Hari Krishna followers. Or sharing dinner on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Taj Mahal as the sun set. Or enjoying a dramatic lightning display on our last night from the rooftop bar of our hotel in Jaipur.
I can honestly say that I fell in love with the country. Whilst you can never get used to the poverty and living conditions in the cities, the warmth of the people and their tireless work ethic is enthralling. I only spent the briefest of time in India but it was enough for me to know that I want to come back soon and explore more.
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