Monday 23 November 2015

Travel Talk: India

India: the most intense, overwhelming, magical country in the world. I have never met anybody who's on the fence about India, it's the Marmite of countries and you either love it or hate it. Me? I'm obsessed.

In today’s post I’ll be sharing my route, some tips on how to get around whilst wishing I was writing this from a 2ac sleeper. Not sure what that is? Keep reading!

The Route
During this trip, I had about 5 weeks to explore so everything was pretty whistle-stop. The thing about India is: IT’S MASSIVE. I've met people who've spent 6 months there and still have places on their “to-see” list. Choose your must-see places beforehand, accept that you might not get to see it all and, make sure you hit the essentials.
Earlier in the year, I had spent 3 months living a volunteering in a tribal village in Southern India (an individual blog post on this is coming soon!). This is where I totally fell in love with the place and I’d been counting down the days til I could make my return! I was desperate to get back to my little village so my trip was largely based around that. The Taj and Varanasi were also a must. Here’s my 5 week India Itinerary:

I cannot explain how “at home” I felt as soon as I came out of Delhi Airport. This will sound ridiculous to so many. Let’s be honest, Delhi is an intense place. If you've never been to India before and are feeling nervous about the adjustment, I’d suggest flying into Mumbai instead, it’s still very much “India” but just less overwhelming.
I spent my first day in Delhi wondering around The Old Town before meeting up with my good friend Daniel who I'd met in Vietnam and convinced him to put his nearly expired Indian visa to use. We spent about 3 days in Delhi and a personal highlight was the lights show at The Red Fort, it really did add to the magic of the place.  


The Taj Mahal. Place of dreams. Obviously, this is an absolute must for anybody travelling in India. For me, it certainly didn’t disappoint and for the first time ever, I felt myself get goose bumps at the sight of an inanimate object (if we can call the Taj Mahal an “object”…). Afterwards we went to Agra fort which I was pleasantly surprised by, I mean, following the Taj is no easy task but this place was a beauty.

Agra is one of those places that people reference when talking about the obvious wealth disparity in India. As a city, it’s totally derelict, it’s dusty and dirty but it’s also home to what’s quite possibly the most recognisable piece of architecture in the world. It’s a strange city for that reason, but, it’s an absolute must see.

Another must. This place is unlike anywhere else in the world. Honestly. Known as The Holy City, thousands of people make the pilgrimage and bathe in the river Ganges. In addition, it’s considered an honour to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges after you’ve passed. There are funerals held 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s right, open air cremations on the river banks. I’m sure some of you would be asking why on earth anyone would want to go along and see that, but, it’s actually really quite something. Respectful and colourful, this wonderful city was a highlight of my entire trip.


Back to Delhi where Daniel was catching a flight to Jordan. We spent one more night here before his flight eating good food and (attempting) to watch the world cup.

This was the first city I ventured to totally alone. After a bit of a nightmare at the train station (just trying to find the tourist ticket office, nothing too major) I headed to my hostel had a shower and headed right for the Golden Temple. This place was unbelievable. This is the thing about India, everywhere is just so beautiful it’s hard to take it all in. There’s so much colour and life everywhere that sometimes you just don’t know where to look. This place was no different, the detail was mindblowing.


In Jaipur I met Ali, a rickshaw driver outside the train station, he took me to my hostel, waited an hour for me to shower and eat after a night train and then we headed out exploring. Ali was just the nicest person I met on this leg of my trip. He took me to all the places I wanted to go, waiting dutifully outside for whenever I wanted to see something else. Jaipur, India is also the place where I drove my first ever vehicle on the road. So err, thanks Ali for letting a non-driver drive your rickshaw on an Indian road. We’re both lucky to be alive, don’t try this at home!
I’d been travelling in monsoon season, but, to be honest this hadn’t affected my trip at all so far. If anything it’d been too sunny (47 degrees at the Taj, ouch). That is. Until I got to Mumbai, when people tell you that it’s rain like you’ve never seen, they aren’t lying. Think, power shower on full blast, everywhere you go. I was here for a few days so day one was pretty much spent in Leopold’s reading Shantaram like an absolute tourist (FYI you can checkour my ultimate travel reading list here). The next day I was off to Dharavi which is one of the largest slums in the world. I really didn't know what to expect and had braced myself for utter heartbreak, what I found was entirely different. Don’t get me wrong, it’s sad, yes, but what I felt more than anything was inspired. The people living here were entrepreneurs, making something from nothing at every turn, they were hard working, bright and so friendly. We could all learn a thing or two from them.
Probably not the most obvious of choices, but, for me it was a must. Mysore was the city in which my volunteer placement was held a few months previous. I knew my way around, the best places to eat and where to stay. I felt 100% at home and was over the moon to be able to catch up with some of the friends I’d made the last time I was here. I’d been waiting for months to get back and as soon as I was, it felt like I’d never been away.

Mahadeshwara< 3
The reason I came back. This tiny little village is my entire world. My family live here and I cannot justify just how magical it was to go back. A full post on my experience living and working in this tribal village will be up soon and check the end of this post for some photos from my second visit.

I’m going to leave this part here otherwise I’ll be rambling forever and this isn’t somewhere your travels would take you so I guess you don’t need the details, but, this place is my wonderland.

After a couple of days spent staying with my friend Manju’s family I was off to Bangalore to fly home. India’s technology hub, Bangalore is worth a visit but probably only if you’re flying in or out from there, my friend Daniel went before we met up, but, found it difficult to meet any other travellers so bear that in mind if it’s an important element of your trip.
Getting Around

Within the cities I most got around by walking, or rickshaw. If you have a few places you want to go to a rickshaw driver will likely take you to all of them and in most places they'll already have worked out the most popular tourist destinations and will sell their journeys on a package basis, usually, this is a good option but you'll definitely have to drive them down on price!

Getting from city to city, I travelled around by train. Top tip: under no circumstances should you convince yourself you want to experience the “real India” and travel by general class. I’ll say that again, under no circumstances. Trains in India are notorious for overcrowding (think the Victoria line, Monday morning, 8am, when the last 10 tubes have been cancelled.) That said, if you get a ticket with a seat reservation (all but the dreaded general) you'll be just fine. The train system can be confusing, this guy’s got your back:
As we’ve covered, India is a huge country, the train journeys are likely to be long, wherever you’re going! Night trains were always my preferred option as it meant saving money on a bed for the night and with such a short amount of time in the county, it kept my days free for wandering. 

For the majority of my trip, I travelled solo and because it was monsoon season there were significantly less backpackers than there would have been otherwise. When people hear me say this, they often ask in one way or another, how safe it was. Personally, I always felt totally safe, but, there were a few things I would recommend.
Choosing somewhere to stay: I lived and died by The Lonely Planet throughout my trips. Try and get the most up to date one possible, choose your hostel (at least in your mind) before you arrive in your next location so you know where you’re heading and (importantly) look it up on TripAdviser beforehand. Word of Mouth is also a great way to find safe, clean hostels, trust your fellow travellers who’ve been there.
Clothing: this is massive. Rightly or wrongly, it’s considered very rude for women to be out and about in India with their knees and shoulders on display. Ditch your vests for tee shirts and invest in a bunch of harem pants. You’ll be super comfy your entire trip and won’t be offending anyone along the way. There are so many beautiful clothes you can buy whilst in India at a super cheap price so don’t worry too much about packing a full backpack beforehand, take enough for a couple of days and buy as you go. Note: As you’ll see from the route, I never made it to Goa, I hear the rules are slightly more relaxed down there.

Alcohol: Whilst I was solo travelling, I didn’t drink in India, nor did I go out on my own in the dark. I know this might seem crazy to some of you backpackers, but, if I’m honest, there is SO much to see and do in India during the day that by the time it was dark let’s face it, I was knackered anyway!

So, there we have it, my India. Not sure if you can tell buuut, I absolutely love the place. He’s a quote I found once that I don’t think has anything to do with India, but, to me it sums it up perfectly: “she never looked nice, she looked like art and art isn’t supposed to look nice, it’s supposed to make you feel something.”
Tell me, have you been to India? I absolutely intend to go back so please let me know where I've missed (Goa and Kerala for sure!)

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