India with Andrea
They jokingly say in India that if you hit a cow with your car and you can still run, then run fast! Said act not only causes ongoing financial problems in this life but it messes something awful with your next lives as well. The unrestricted wandering of the revered cow in cities like Varanasi was fascinating. Their diet of plastic, paper and roadside waste brings me to think that these animals have evolved so that if they actually did see grass I'm not sure they would know what to do with it. It was suggested by our guide that sometimes their milk was not very hygienic to drink and that they like living in the city. The exhausts keep the flies away and the toxic fumes get them high.
Almost three weeks in magical India, and our Delhi starting point includes Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque. It was as if we had wandered on to a gigantic & magnificent film set with 25,000 people able to worship in its courtyard. Old Delhi was our first taste of India’s overwhelming population and it was like being constantly caught up in a stadium concert crowd. The sheer volume of population supporting everything from small handcarts selling tinsel or chewing tobacco to those less fortunate crouched in the dirt displaying nuts or cups of water. Indians travel a lot in their own country and as western tourists, we were definitely in the minority. The sights were not crowded but most of them were indeed huge.
Jaipur was a delight. The Pink City is home to the striking Amber Fort and the Palace of Winds. Both much photographed with the latter a surprising facade built to allow the royal ladies of the past to discretely watch grand processions. We had some of our most exciting and hair-raising drives through the old city here and the memories will last a life time.
Arriving into Agra was a shock. I was not expecting this city - the home of one of the world’s most famous monuments - to also showcase some of the most gut-wrenching poverty I've ever seen and, for me, it clearly defined the contrast between extreme luxury and extreme poverty throughout. The Taj Mahal is however a true wonder of the world and its stunning colour that changes as the sun rises simply demands your admiration. It's not a monument that will disappoint.
The ancient city of Varanasi was all that I had read about and envisaged. It delivered in spades the smells and sights that filled the imagination, boggled the senses and pulled you right out of your comfort zone. An early morning boat ride on the sacred Ganges to the cremation Ghats was unforgettable and although Hindus believe its waters cleanse the soul, I wasn't getting wet no matter how many of my sins need urgent attention.
The cell phone is an essential piece of equipment and everyone appeared to have at least one. This is a country where the women work hard behind the scenes and small groups of men linger everywhere. Higher education is valued and even the child hawkers can greet and discuss the merits of their particular product with each nationality in their own tongue. Although India has a reputation, and because of this, I researched and chose how I wanted to travel with care, I never felt unsafe or threatened and most people were curious but friendly. Even the beggars or hawkers, although very much in your face sometimes, did not touch you.
If you are the sort of traveler who prefers driving sedately, then India will indeed be an eye opener. If Athens is organized chaos and Cairo is just chaos, then India is polite anarchy. I could detect no discernable patterns or rules in some of the best roundabout jams and it was just nose to tail with cars, buses, trucks, cows, auto rickshaws, horses, people, bikes and carts. Apparently you need three things to drive - good horn, good brakes and good luck. I think good nerves and the ability to hold it should be added to the list.
Local transport drivers have their paying clients (as many as you can fit in), their profit (hanging out of doors or off the bumpers) and then their bonuses (on the roof). And when a bit of road opened up everyone put the hammer down. It was not unusual when open road driving, to see trucks coming the wrong way up your lane, folks passing while others passed them or livestock meandering across the highway. The loads were fantastic and on the outskirts of cities, kilometres of decorated trucks parked up waiting for their next jobs.
The food was incredible and in a country where it's important to be aware of exactly what goes in your mouth, it was difficult to stop eating. My tummy held up well - lucky maybe, but full definitely. Portions where decent and travelling with 4 others allowed lots of tastings at excellent value. Alcohol was the kicker - the taxes on that made it a bit pricey.
Landing in Cochin was like arriving in a different country. The sweaty, oppressive heat of the south reinforced that it was Kerala's off season but the fantastic shopping in small air conditioned boutiques in Jew Town more than made up for it. The quaintness of the harbour and picturesque Chinese fishing nets added another dimension for me to India's huge diversity.
Inland to Periyar was where tiger spotting and spice & tea plantations called. The south seemed relaxed, lusher and more aware of tourism & the environmental impact on each other. Accommodations with Ayurvedic massage and spotless grounds nestled comfortably beside homestays and more simple hotels. Our houseboat on the backwaters was a simple delight and we were witness to a spectacular light & sound show with a massive storm passing through. Our final night was spent at a green resort in Kumarakom where we happily got rid of all remaining rupees being massaged and exfoliated to within an inch of indecency. The rupee certain goes a long way here.
India is not coy about her problems and this is not a country for the precious traveler. But this remarkable, colourful nation definitely deserves consideration when planning your next adventure.
And you may well like me, decide you want to return.