“Incredible India” is what the tourism campaign says. And it’s truly incredible… incredible how one place can be so disgusting. India is a fascinating place – full of interesting history and some amazing monuments – but for me, a lot of that was overshadowed by just how gross things were. Traffic is horrendous and the drivers could give even an adventure seeker a heart attack. The worst part is the honking. Indians honk their horns incessantly and for any and every reason. There is never silence in India – even when all other noise goes quiet, there’s always the constant hum of a million car horns honking. The air is smoggy and hazy and everything is dusty. There is little colour and little green to be seen because of the pollution. Trash litters the streets, the sidewalks, the alleyways, and just about everywhere else you can think of. Cows are also everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Roaming around and shitting all over the place. Pepsi is ubiquitous – much more so than Coca-Cola – which is a major indicator that a place sucks. But the worst part, and I hate to say this, are the people. I know many Indian people outside of India and they are so lovely. Our local tour guide, Shivraj, was also so lovely – one of my best tour guides ever. But the general population – at least the part that interacts with tourists – seems to be full of terrible touts, hawkers, and scammers. Beggars fill the streets and would often come up to me with dirty hands and touch me while they asked for a handout. These were usually women who had a naked, crying baby in their arms. At first I felt bad, but after the first few, I just was annoyed. Shop owners constantly and aggressively try to pull you in to their shops. Random people on the street will start talking to you – pretending to be genuinely interested in you as a tourist – but it always quickly turns into an offer to take you somewhere – likely a store, restaurant, or hotel owned by their mate. It was always a scam. They all just want to cheat tourists out of money.
I know India isn’t all bad. My tour took us to the main tourist cities, so I imagine it would be less in-your-face elsewhere. I definitely want to go to back one day – India is a big country and there’s a lot to be explored, particularly in the south of India. But for now, I’m happy my trip was only 8 days. And I feel like I don’t need to ever go back to the places I’ve already been.
A few highlights of my time in India:
I had a half-day only in Delhi and our group pretty much only saw the India Gate – a big war monument. That was enough for me. It was a big, disgusting, crazy city and I was pleased to move on.
Jaipur was much more pleasant than Delhi, but that’s not saying too much. Our group strolled around some markets, went to a gem making workshop, explored the old City Palace, and visited the UNESCO-listed Amber Fort. The fort is a huge palace with ornate decoration in a small town outside Jaipur. This was definitely a highlight. The two bigger highlights from Jaipur, however, were Jantar Mantar and seeing a Bollywood film. Jantar Mantar is/was the royal astronomical observatory and (allegedly) holds the biggest sundial in the world along with various other sundials and devices that tell not only time, but also advise on the constellations, the zodiac, and more. The largest sundial was accurate to two seconds! It was fantastic. That night, we saw a Bollywood film – the debut movie of one of India’s most famous stand-up comedians. In the film, he accidentally married three women but was trying to marry a fourth – the one he actually loved. Most of it was in Hindi, but we could ascertain quite a bit despite there being no subtitles. The audience was super engaged with the movie and it created a great atmosphere!
Our first stop in Agra was the Agra Fort, another of India’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. The fort was built by and home to several Mughal rulers – the Muslim invaders that ruled the Indian sub-continent for over 300 years starting in the early 16th century. Different rulers added on different palaces to the fort. One of the more interesting sections was the gorgeous prison room where the sixth Mughal ruler kept the fifth Mughal ruler, his father, after he deposed him (and killed his three brothers so they couldn’t take the throne). The Agra Fort also gave great views of the Taj Mahal, Agra’s (and India’s) most famous tourist attraction. The Taj Mahal was built by the fifth Mughal ruler (before he was imprisoned) as a mausoleum for his favourite wife. Their story, as we were told it, is one of the greatest love stories recorded in history. I would tell you all about it here, but you can just read it on Wikipedia instead. The Taj Mahal was gorgeous – a stunning building on the outside (and surprisingly small on the inside). The gardens were well-maintained and everything was delightful despite the mass of tourists there. Then you walked out the main gate back to the real world full of touts, cows, and dirt.
Aside from the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, which was definitely the highlight of India, there’s absolutely nothing else to do in Agra.
A little-known small town that’s fairly new on the tourist circuit, tiny Orchha was a great break from the big cities of India. A convenient stop between Agra and Varanasi, Orchha boasts a big palace complex known as the Raja Mahal (and the attached Jahangir Mahal) which was first constructed in 1531. There’s a lot of history to this palace, but the most important thing for us was that THERE WAS A BOLLYWOOD TV SHOW BEING FILMED THERE DURING OUR VISIT! It was a random awesome happening: stars, cameras, make-up, props, extra, and more. We were able to walk around and take pictures with the props and selfies with some of the extras – all local boys who were paid a little to stand there in gladiator style attire. The other big draws of Orchha are two temples: the large Chaturbhuj Temple, where a wacky guide took us on a fantastic tour up random staircases to the roof for a photo shoot, and the Ram Raja Temple, where we attended an evening prayer ceremony. The Ram Raja Temple was interesting in that it didn’t look at all like a temple. Turns out it was part of a palace but became a temple when a statue of the god Rama was temporarily placed there and was unable to be moved. Ha!
Elsewhere in Orchha, we explored fifteen old cenotaphs dedicated to some old kings, took a cooking class (which was more of a demonstration but was still delicious), and visited a unique paper factory where old cotton clothes picked out of the trash are turned into high quality paper. The factory is a government initiative to employ people.
Everyone who speaks of Varanasi always raves about it, but to be blunt, I thought it was pretty shitty. After our overnight train, we visited silk workshops in the Muslim area of the city and navigated our way through aggressive touts every three feet. We took our first and only cycle rickshaws (and certainly my last cycle rickshaw ever) through heavy Varanasi traffic. The big ticket items in Varanasi were an evening boat trip and a sunrise boat trip on the Ganges River. As with all of India, the pollution was thick so the air was too hazy to actually see the sunrise but we did see evening and morning prayer ceremonies as well as locals bathing and doing laundry in the river. Cremations were taking place in two spots along the river with ashes later to be dumped in. Overall, I just didn’t think Varanasi had much to offer aside from the Ganges, and the traffic, noise, pollution, and aggressive locals really made getting around the city rather unpleasant. The highlight of Varanasi, however, was a delicious lassi shop called Blue Lassi. That brings me to…
Indian food is fucking delicious and I’ll argue with anyone who disagrees. Blue Lassi above serves all sorts of lassis – Indian yogurt drinks often flavoured with fruit – which I had two of each day. There were the breads (naan, cheese naan, garlic naan, paneer naan, roti, puri, chapatti, and more) and, of course, the curries. I had butter chicken every other meal, along with plenty of chana masala (chickpeas), paneer (Indian cheese) in a variety of different dishes, and a new one that I had never heard of before: murgh kali mirch – a chicken dish cooked in an almond and yogurt sauce. I had samosas, drank plenty of masala chai, and only strayed from Indian food once in eight days (I had to get Mexican food at least once, right?)
Overall, the food (and the Taj Mahal) were the highlights of India. I was excited to be done with India – for now – and was curious to see what Nepal would look like. But first, let me take a selfie.
To see more photos of my time in India, follow this link: