India wasn't on our plan initially. A little pique of curiosity would pop up about it from time to time when we were planning our route but I'd never had an over whelming urge to visit. Everyone I spoke to about it was divided on their opinions of it - half loved it passionately, the other half didn't. However, fate took a hand in things when we landed in Bangkok to the worst monsoon Thailand had seen in 50 years. A quick check of every weather website we could find and next thing we knew we were booking flights to New Delhi. Flights are relatively cheap. Skyscanner has become one of the most important websites for us so far for finding the cheapest flights.
Landing in New Delhi was exciting. It was like nowhere I've ever been before, a totally new sensation for the senses. This instantly made me fall in love with it just because it was so different. The intricately decorated trucks with their hand painted signs were… pretty. The constant beeping from every vehicle was endearing. The frantic driving by the calm drivers was fascinating. The friendliness of the staff at the guesthouse when we checked in even though they couldn't speak any English was adorable.
Once we landed our plan was to get a train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We were planning on doing it as a day trip and had been trying to book train tickets from the moment we decided we were going to India - approx 3 days. The Indian train system is a gas thing altogether. The Indians swear it works but it is very confusing at first. The Cleartrip website makes it a little easier but still… Tickets are sold for the allocation of seats and you are given a confirmation. They oversell the tickets as people cancel etc and if you book one of these you are put on a waiting list and you can check where you are on the waiting list with the PNR number. This number shows where you were in the queue when you booked the ticket and where you are at the time of checking. You don't get your final position until the charts are done at the station on the day. If your over 10 chances are you aren't getting on but it's like a lottery, you never know. This provided hours of entertainment for the first few days, it was like gambling as we had booked loads of trains so checking it to see where we were was like a game. Naturally the novelty quickly wore off. We never did win the lottery and make it to the Taj Mahal.
Not making it on the train to Agra meant we had the chance to explore New Delhi. It was overwhelming, but in a good way. We had a lovely Tuk Tuk driver who we paid for the day to bring us on a whistle stop tour of the city. it's the only way we've seen Delhi but it felt like the best. We saw all the landmarks as well as day to day Delhi life - the Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb, the spice markets, slum life, elephants on the street, local restaurants for lunch etc. It also felt secure. We're be two confident girls but both of us felt more at ease with a local on our side.
India seems to be working really hard on changing the way women are seen in their society - there are billboards and ads in the papers highlighting women in a positive nature (weird in itself to a western woman) but it hasn't quite spilled down all the way to men of India. We were careful to be respectful of the Indian cultures and traditions when we were getting dressed and covered every little bit of skin we had however nothing prepares you for the uninhibited stares from the men. You get used to it after a while but there is no efforts at discretion when it comes to their staring. They are going to stare you down whether you like it or not. On the other side of the coin, for all the staring they do, as a woman you suddenly become invisible when it comes to queueing or being served. We were next in line on a number of occasions and Indian men cut in front of us. Even when we tried to assert our position, the men behind the counter simply served the men. I'd be interested to return to India in 10 years to see if the women's movements efforts makes any difference.
We left Delhi and made our way to the beaches of Goa. We'd imagined beautiful white sand beaches and weren't wrong however the rubbish (and cows) on the beaches is really off-putting. I was reading Shantaram while we were in India and because of xxx beautiful depiction of the India and its inhabitants tried to get out of a western mind set and try to get under the skin of the Indian nation. It was really hard though. The rubbish everywhere is just hard to deal with no matter how you try to rationalise it as part of the culture. Same goes for the incessant spitting. HUP.
Again, inspired by our readings and people harping on about the friendliness of the Indians, we were really surprised by how rude we found them. We really tried our best to get beyond the abrasiveness and find the warmth but by golly it was difficult. We have no doubt the people we spoke to weren't lying about the joy they found in the Indians but we were at a loss to find it and we were really sad about this.
We eventually got on a train to Kerala to visit an Ashram but after a not very pleasant 19 hour trip decided we'd given India our best but it was time to leave the land of the surly and head to the Land of the Smiles. We booked flights and bid India farewell. Our last memory of India was flying out of Mumbai. It really is such a shock and an extremely humbling experience to see the slums of the city as you fly out. Elsewhere poverty lives next door to salubrious homes but the sheer extent of the slums is hard to grasp.
Honestly, it feels disappointing to come away from India feeling like this as we really wanted to like it and tried so much not to be ignorant westerners storming in with our expectation of how things should be and try to understand their ways. We failed. What makes it all the worse is every time the Indians asked if you were enjoying their country they seemed so proud and happy to accept any affirmations as a personal compliment to them. Maybe we just needed to try harder. Or be men.
The Golden Triangle of New Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur
The beaches of Goa - Anjuna; Palolem; Colva;
Ashram - Kerala
Holy city of Varansai