If you’re planning a trip to India, whether you’re backpacking, taking a tour or only have two-weeks, or even two months, there’s nothing more compelling than reading someone’s first-hand experience of what travelling in India is really like.
My Backpacking India Adventures…
I look back at my time in India through rose-tinted glasses. I have distorted facts with an Instagram filter. The long train rides across the Indian countryside with my hair blowing in the wind, being served chai tea on the platforms by sweet, smiling, children… Oh, hang on a minute?
Do you mean the train which was invaded cockroaches? Where you had to take a pee precariously balancing over a large hole as the train moved at 50mph? Those sweet kids who tried to steal my bracelet through the window as the train moved away?
I definitely appreciated my time there more so after I had left. There are no two ways about it. It was a culture shock. It took me weeks, months even, to digest this huge and diverse country that is India: the sights, the sounds, the way of life, the poverty; the Indian people; who are both infuriating and accommodating in equal measure. The Indian head tilt can be exasperating when you need something doing urgently like get a new passport… But more of that later. Backpacking India was to shape my whole future – but of course, I didn’t realise it at the time. India is so unlike anything I had ever encountered before and will probably never experience again.
My Indian Travel Itinerary
New Delhi was our first port of call. Excited and nervous – we were definitely a case of fresh meat straight off the plane. Wide-eyed and relatively clueless, my friends and I were there for the taking… Quite literally. I won’t bore you with the long version of the story but needless to say we got diddled by a very tricky taxi driver who took us to his friend’s hostel.
Golden triangle India itinerary
The following morning he ended up waiting for us and driving us to his ‘cousin’, where we ended up being bullied by a very persistent travel agent into hiring a driver for several weeks and doing a Golden Triangle tour – taking in Delhi, Agra and the Pink City, Jaipur, before visiting Varanasi, and jumping on a train to Goa.
We had been well and truly scammed. The scent of our naïvety must have been strong. But we got off likely compared to other travellers we met along the way. However, things happen for a reason. And our reason was getting the services of our driver Manesh. My first memory of him is when we got into the car and my friend asked if it had air conditioning. Manesh just wound down the windows, pointed to the air and grinned. He was a gem. Kind and gentle on our long road trip, he took us to out-of-the-way places; humbled us into contemplation when in his pidgin English he would tell us about his wife and children and how it was hard to be away from them for such long periods of time.
He took us to food stalls on the side streets where I tasted my first stuffed paratha for breakfast. The most delicious tandoori bread filled with spicy potato. And to this day I still haven’t been able to find one at any Indian restaurant/takeaway in the UK that can match it.
We went through villages and towns probably not seen by your average tourist. He took us to watch the sunset over Pushkar and its holy Lake in Rajasthan – a pilgrimage destination for Hindus. I was blown away, the air filled with the sound of chanting and prayer.
We explored the Pink City Jaipur and its Water and City Palace. Did what tourists did, but also what tourists didn’t do, when Manesh would just drive somewhere, point and tell us to go and take a look around. He even took us to watch several Bollywood films at the cinema – the locals segregated into females and male sections, all of them staring at us (we were stared at a lot during our time there) as we made our way into the theatres. We didn’t understand the language – but strangely we got the gist of the storylines and loved it. And he loved that we loved it.
I remember the amusement that flickered across his face when we landed in Varanasi and gawked at the burning pyres along the sacred River Ganges and its long string of bathing ghats. Huge steps leading down to the river from which pilgrims make their sin-cleansing dip in the holy river and on which bodies are cremated. It was an awesome sight. Giving flower offerings to priests in exchange for good health and well-being; queuing behind the masses of pilgrims there to do the same thing; So many people, so much going on. I remember being overwhelmed. In fact, I was overwhelmed a lot of my time in India!
Even though we had a tough introduction, Manesh and our road trip made us a bit more hardy… but only a little. The journey had really only just begun – and we hadn’t even arrived in Agra yet to see one of the most famous mausoleums in the world – The Taj Mahal… And don’t even ask about the revolving restaurant we ended up eating in, or how we managed to get a drink with the England Cricket team. Oh, and did I mention that I was soon to meet my future husband?
When we arrived in Agra, the home to the Taj Mahal, I was taken by surprise. It wasn’t how I imagined. Agra is a busy stop-through thriving from tourists who specifically go there for one reason and one reason alone. It isn’t pretty by any means and not a place you’d want to spend any amount of time in.
I recall having a long drive on the road when we finally arrived. All of us starving. Once we’d dumped our bags and bid goodnight to Manesh, we went for a wander. Although we decided not to stray too far as we had to be up at the crack of dawn. I don’t know how we found the restaurant, or what even made us think it’ll be any good but we were seduced by the promise of fabulous views of the Taj and the surrounding vista. And the best thing of all… It was revolving!
I recall nothing of the food but I do remember the four of us howling with laughter at the ‘view’ ie: pitch black and the ‘revolving’ motion which amounted to a slight position shift every five minutes. It was like the man powering the pedal bike to turn the gears had been on a long tea break. We really should have turned away when we saw the restaurant was empty…
Visiting The Taj Mahal
At 4.00am the next morning, I woke up with a sense of nervous anticipation. Manesh told us this was the quietest time to go and visit the Taj Mahal, so we left to watch the sun rise over this world-famous heritage site.
For about 30 minutes it was very peaceful and I was able to recreate the famous ‘Diana’ pose without too much interference. It was enjoyable to walk around the gardens and to explore what essentially is a tomb, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. I marvelled at the white marble glistened as the sun rose higher in the sky and, even though it was a lot smaller than I had imagined, it was still mesmerising.
I was also fascinated by the myth that Shah Jahan planned a mausoleum to be built in black marble as a Black Taj Mahal across the Yamuna river – and we spent several minutes trying to see the blackened remains where the moonlight garden is now situated but there are many theories which dispel this myth. I like to believe the story, though – there’s something mystical about it. When the crowds starting descending in their droves, it was time to make a hasty departure.
So our time with Manesh was drawing to a close… Once we jumped back into the car, we headed back to New Delhi on our last road trip with him. It was a muted, awkward goodbye but we thanked him profusely for looking after us and of course, gave him a parting gift, hoping our little collection would go some way in helping him and his family.
Experiencing an Indian Train Station
The train station was nothing of the platforms I was used to back in London. Large families huddled together eating their food; hawkers and chai sellers whistled up and down, streets kids were looking for their next targets. We were to spend three days journeying south, past Mumbai and to the coast. I was exhausted. And feeling rather fat. I had eaten delicious curries at breakfast, lunch, and dinner and it was beginning to show. I yearned for some seafood and some sea air.
Taking the Train from New Delhi to Goa
We had opted for second class naively believing this would be fairly luxurious. Of course, compared to the other standards it was – so a curtain and some folded down seats were to be our home for the next 72 hours, sharing it with cockroaches, insects, an Indian family across the way who couldn’t stop staring at us and anyone who walked past our ‘compartment’. Our food was served through the open window at station stops – where we mainly opted for simple fare, bread and dhal supped down with tea and bottled water, or by uniformed boys running up and down the carriages.
We read, played games, stared out of the window taking in the madness of the station stops and the mass of people going about their daily lives and the changing scenery which was beginning to turn more green and more sprawling. But as the journey went on, we began to worry about where we were actually going… Because there were no announcements made at any stops. And it soon dawned on us that we could be heading somewhere else entirely… We had no idea where we were. Impatiently, we waited for the train guard to come past and grabbed him. He couldn’t really understand us but we kept asking when we needed to get off. He just kept pointing at our ticket and insisted we stayed until the end.
We didn’t feel any better. It was clear in his demeanour, he was fobbing us off. Defeated, we all lamented that we’d never get to Goa. Then, a friendly Indian woman popped her head through our curtain and reminded us about the kindness of strangers.
‘Don’t listen to that man,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t help overhearing, but you’ll need to get off the train way before the end.’
We thanked her profusely when she told us she would let us know the right stop, and not to worry. She told us she studied at Oxford which is why she could speak English and introduced us to her friend. We chatted a while and then suddenly became magnets for others to join in, including western travellers we hadn’t noticed before. It made the last part of our journey much more enjoyable. Even the Indian family across the way started grinning at us. As promised, our new friend gave us the nod when we had arrived, wished us well and we finally departed the train.
The smells, the air, the surroundings – everything was different to the city, that much was obvious as soon as we exited the station. We didn’t even have a plan, where to stay, where to head to. We were all just so happy to be there. We hailed a taxi truck, climbed on the back of it and told the driver to take us somewhere nearby, as long as it was by the sea. I was finally in Goa and about to start the next chapter of my adventure…
Goa, which used to be a Portuguese colony, is so unlike other parts of India that I encountered. While I was there, it felt a different way of life, more relaxed, not so frantic in comparison to the big cities – even though there was still the hustle bustle of street life in the capital Panjim.
We got dropped off 5km from the railway station and managed to find basic but comfortable digs for the next few days situated right on the beach. Even though we spent a few restful days at the small town of Benaulim, sipping cool beer watching the sunset over the sea, wandering along the beach and exploring the village, it was a little too quiet for our tastes, so we moved on.
We had heard on the grapevine from other travellers that the place to head to was further south of Goa, to a small beach town called Palolem and, back then in 2001, it was still relatively unknown and unspoilt. We didn’t procrastinate too much and it was a decision that was to shape the rest of my life… When we rocked up, we has no idea where we were going to stay. For some reason our radar took us to the end of Palolem’s stunning crescent-shaped beach to Ciaran’s Camp – its simple wooden beach huts were so inviting. We didn’t know how long we’d stay so negotiated one week for £6. As it turned out, it was to be our home for the next three.
Maybe this is why whenever I am near the sea and hear the sound of waves, I feel calm. And, it was here in Palolem, I used to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean crashing into the shore. It often felt like I was actually lying on the beach itself and it was the first time since I left to go on my travels that I truly felt relaxed.
We explored the area – even though there wasn’t too much to see as Palolem wasn’t very developed at this time; I read a lot of books, dozed in a hammock – which was pretty dangerous on several occasions when coconuts would drop from their leafy homes without warning. I sunbathed, swam in the sea, even one night going out to see the phosphorous rocks glowing green in the still waters. We also made friends; gorged on seafood, the Goan prawn curry a firm favourite; and played a lot of card games. It certainly was a care-free existence where days seemed to roll into one and I began to lose track of time.
Part of the group of travellers we became friendly with included my now husband… I’m not going to lie – there were no fireworks or cupids in the air as at the time because romance wasn’t even on my mind. But, of course, there was an attraction, friendly banter, and some harmless flirting. But it didn’t even occur to me we’d see each other again. He was there with his brother and two friends and we only got to spend a few days with the group, before they headed off to Anjuna in the north. So that was that… Or so I thought…
One scorching day, we decided to grab a boat taxi and head over to Anjuna to check out its famous markets. I still to this day don’t know if fate played a mysterious hand but when we stepped off the boat, we literally ran into hubby and his friends, who happened to be sitting on the beach where the boat had docked.
We ended up spending all our time with them, laughing and chatting. The day quickly turned into night and we went with the flow, grabbed some dinner and carried on drinking well into the early hours of the morning. A beach bonfire had been lit and revellers descended on to the sand. It was a busy night, locals weaving in and out of the crowds, hawkers trying to sell their wares. I was pretty giddy, but I soon sobered up when I realised my bag had gone missing… And so had my friend’s… We had been robbed. And oh, so stupidly, I had packed my passport, bank cards, my round-the-world plane ticket and camera in it…
Only five weeks into backpacking India and I had lost all that was important… I remember crying a lot. Panicking. And polishing off half a bottle of vodka…
In the morning, with a sore head and knotted stomach, it was time for me to deal with the consequences. First up, was a sheepish phone call to my parents. After more tears and a lot of shouting – from my mum – we bid a hasty farewell to the lads, exchanged email addresses (which were a fairly new-fangled thing back then) and headed to the police station to get a police report for insurance purposes.
Needless to say, what we thought would be a fairly simple process ended up taking up over eight hours… Of crying, begging, standing our ground and then crying some more. The dodgy police officer was insistent we pay for his time… But as we explained over and over again, we had no money as it had been stolen! Thankfully, he relented just to get rid of us… But it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Exhausted and deflated, we made the journey back to Palolem with what little money we had… And knew it was the end of our time in beautiful Goa. As much as I wanted to stay in this tropical bubble there were urgent matters to attend to. We needed to get the train back to Mumbai and get new passports and plane tickets.
So, it was with a heavy heart we left… And boarded the train on to the last stage of our backpacking India adventure…
It’s hard to nail down what makes Mumbai – formerly Bombay – such a likeable city. If you’ve ever read the brilliant book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, you might get some inkling through his descriptive prose. ‘More dreams are realised and extinguished in Bombay than any other place in India,’ Roberts writes.
Mumbai is a city of two halves… On the one side, you have some of Asia’s largest slums. On the other, riches beyond the wildest of imaginations. And The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is a great example of the wealth that exudes above the underbelly of different classes; from the servants to the dreamers, street kids, stray dogs and gangsters, all trying to make their way in India’s capital. It’s also the epicentre to a prolific film industry – Bollywood; home to budding starlets with big aspirations, and home to famous Indian celebrities. This was in plain view when on one street corner you’d see trendy cafés, bars and restaurants, but one wrong turn and you’d be faced with the poorer side of the metropolis. I never felt unsafe, however, even when we were accosted by beggars and drug sellers.
We spent a ridiculous amount of time at the British consulate – days in fact – getting our new passports and trying to organise an exit visa. The bureaucracy was slow and infuriating. We couldn’t actually fly out from Mumbai because we had entered India via New Delhi, and would need permission to do so. I spent a long time staring at the same four walls of the same waiting room.
The Gateway of India
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
That evening, to celebrate finally receiving our exit visa, we decided to forget the budget and splash out on a fancy night in Colaba – after backpacking India we really needed a pick me up. First, a drink in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. We weren’t really sure if they’d let us in… Seeing as we didn’t have anything glamorous to wear. But as we shuffled through the doors nervously, no one even batted an eyelid when we sat down and ordered some expensive beers.
As we were enjoying our surroundings we couldn’t help noticing the loud chatter coming from the table next to us. As I turned, legendary cricketer Nasser Hussain stared back at me and waved. He and the rest of the England cricket team were staying at the hotel and enjoying a drink. Now, I’m not a big cricket fan but knew this was a brilliant celeb spot! We shyly chatted to them for around 10 minutes and Nasser even joined us for a photo. By this time our beers had disappeared, we resolved to move on… on a bar crawl. It was fun night!
The following morning, it was time for us to say goodbye to Mumbai and bid farewell to India. After only three days in the capital, we had finally got all the documents we needed to leave. I really enjoyed my time in the city and wished we could have stayed longer. And I was surprised by how much I liked it – in some ways it reminded me a lot of home…
Reflections of Two Months Backpacking India…
On reflection, India was a complete and utter culture shock. Paradoxically, I was sad and happy to be leaving all at the same time. I never really appreciated its beauty until I left. Of course, this is the country where I met my husband, where the path of my new life with him began after a chance meeting on a beach in Goa. So, there’s no other way for me to remember India but with a fondness in my heart.
India’s not for everyone and backpacking India is tough. That I can state unequivocally. And it’s also nigh on impossible to describe in just a few sentences. It’s hot, chaotic, dusty and crowded. In some parts overwhelming, in others, tranquil. It’s also hard on the senses. There are some sights that will make you want to turn away; and single moments that make you want to stop and stare – for time to stand still.
It’s a country that makes you think. Challenges you, not only physically but emotionally. It makes you question your life and how others live. It gives you the highest of highs but can pull you down in a matter of seconds. Will I ever go back? I’d like to. It’s such an enormous country, and there is still so much to see and discover. However, part of me doesn’t want to ruin the memories that I have already. India will always remain an enigma, and she will continue to shock and amaze travellers who are brave enough to go and sample her delights…