I look back at my time in India through rose-tinted glasses. I have distorted facts with an Instagram filter. Those 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?
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 nick my bracelet through the window as the train moved away?
I definitely appreciated my time there more so after I had left. There is no two ways about it. It was a culture shock. It took me weeks, months even, to digest this huge and diverse country: 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.
India is so unlike anything I had ever encountered before and will probably never experience again.
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. 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/guide for several weeks across the Golden Triangle – 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 restaurant/takeaway that can match it.
We went through villages and towns probably not seen by your average tourist. He took us to watch the sun set 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?
To be continued…